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Failed attempt to fight bedbugs sparks devastating fire

(Photo: Courtesy of Sherry Young)

USA TODAY NETWORK Daniel Bethencourt, Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Sherry Young says she spent close to a year living in fear of bedbugs.

So on Monday, sleep-deprived and desperate, she turned on her apartment’s stove and oven. She left for a day.

Then she returned, sprayed herself with rubbing alcohol, and started pouring alcohol across the floor.

The ensuing flames tore through the 48-unit apartment complex, growing so powerful that the building’s roof caved in. Nine fire engines and about 60 personnel fought the blaze.

By the time it was over on late Tuesday afternoon, the building was considered a total loss. Five people, including Young, were taken to the hospital, in what the Detroit Fire Department is calling an accidental fire. Three of the injured were firefighters.

Young, interviewed by phone from the hospital, said she was overcome with regret.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, struggling to speak as she began sobbing. “I didn’t mean it. My neighbors … everybody’s displaced because of me.”

Young moved into a unit at Ramblewood Apartments on Detroit’s west side more than two years ago. She had been homeless and placed in the unit by Travelers Aid, which could not be reached for comment.

Sometime around January, she began to notice markings on her body. She thought she was breaking out — but then the marks multiplied, and she noticed what looked like bedbugs.

She wasn’t sure they were bedbugs, but a neighbor had seen bedbugs recently and thought they had spread to Young’s apartment instead.

Young called Travelers Aid. They sent an exterminator whose treatment of the apartment was supposed to last six months. But Young was getting bites again within a couple weeks.

Someone who worked with Ramblewood Apartments tried to exterminate them as well. That also didn’t seem to work.

The bedbugs would disappear then re-appear. Young became more desperate. She says that she asked management to be moved to another unit, but was told one wasn’t available. She ran a steam machine all over the sheets, but the insects would crawl up onto the ceiling and then drop down on her.

“I feel like I’m in some kind of horror movie, with this thing laying eggs around my bed,” she said.

And the bedbugs wouldn’t seem to leave her body either, though she was taking twice-daily baths.

“I was in a state of torment,” she said.

That’s when Young was close to a breaking point. A day or so before Tuesday’s fire, Young decided to try to heat.

“I didn’t know that the fumes were so ignitable. Had I known that, I would not have doused myself before going into the apartment.”
Sherry Young
A neighbor had told Young that after leaving the oven and stove on for days, their bedbugs had disappeared for good. She thought the intense heat might work for her as well.

But she also decided that alcohol might work, too. She bought 20 bottles from a Walmart in Dearborn.

She then turned on her stove and oven. She spent Monday night sleeping in her car, as the apartment heated up.

Theodore Reynolds, who lives nearby and used to live in at Ramblewood Apartments, remembers running into her and noticing how sleep-deprived and distraught she was. He could also see the various markings from the neck up.

“She really believed that she was under attack,” Reynolds said.

Then the next day, on Tuesday afternoon, shortly before going back inside the apartment at 2 p.m., she doused rubbing alcohol all over herself.

“I didn’t know that the fumes were so ignitable,” she said. “Had I known that, I would not have doused myself before going into the apartment.”

Before going inside, she said a prayer. She hoped this attempt would work once and for all.

Then she opened the door.

The room inside was like a sauna. The walls were hot to the touch. Young began pouring alcohol on the floor, one section at a time.

She was pouring close to the oven when she turned around and saw that the floor was on fire. It was the section of floor where she was standing. Her boots were on fire, and so was she.

Young ran out of the apartment as fast as she could, screaming for the Fire Department. But then, she says she feared for her neighbors. So she turned around and ran back inside, running through thick smoke , and banged on doors, trying to get neighbors out.

She kept banging until she fell to the ground. On the floor, the air was much clearer. At some point a neighbor and at least one other person physically pulled her away.

She was taken to the hospital for burns a short while later.

“I feel so bad about everything and my neighbors mostly,” she said. “They didn’t deserve that.”

In the aftermath of the fire, Ramblewood’s management moved some of the residents into other units owned by the company, said Amelia Hoover, a disaster program specialist with the Red Cross. Many were given Red Cross vouchers for $125.

But some residents had no place to go afterward. Corace Harleque, 59, who is handicapped, said he can’t stay at any of the other units because they don’t have wheelchair access. He said he had no idea where he was going to sleep on Thursday night.

“It’s not right,” Harleque said.

Young is still in the hospital. When she gets out, she doesn’t know where she’ll be staying next.

“I’m feeling desperate,” she said between sobs. “I’m being tormented. I’m living in a nightmare.”

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