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Man runs into building fire to warn neighbors as friend dials 911

Published: Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 1:36 p.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Nov. 6, 2017 10:50 a.m. CST
(David Dolmage/Daily News)
Roommates Rob Smith and Rick Lust hold Smith's dog Courtney, in their apartment Friday morning. Smith and Lust were on their way back from a trip to the grocery store when they found their apartment building ablaze early Friday morning.

As friends Rob Smith and Rick Lust pulled into the parking lot of the Meadowbrook Apartments in the early morning hours of Friday, something didn’t look right. It was between 3:45 and 4 a.m. in the morning when the two noticed smoke and saw fire coming out of the front entrance of their apartment building.

“I told him to go inside and try and stomp it out, but the flames were going up the wall, it was too late,” Lust said.

The two men had made a late night shopping trip to pick up groceries and go “rut-hunting” to look for deer in advance of the upcoming hunting season when they returned to the building Friday morning. After realizing they couldn’t put the fire out and were unable to reach the fire extinguisher on the upper landing of the building, Lust called 911 while Smith went to the back entrance of the building to attempt to wake up his neighbors and rescue his dog.

“I yelled ‘Fire, fire, fire, get the [expletive] out’, that’s how I got everyone’s attention,” Smith said.

The 911 call, which police said they received at 3:43 am alerted police and firefighters to the blaze, and Smith said a police officer was on the scene within minutes of the call. Firefighters used ladders to rescue six residents from the second and third floor windows of the building. There were no injuries reported in the blaze.

The intense heat from the fire, which started in a wastebasket near the front door of the building melted the smoke detectors and shattered the lightbulbs in the stairwell. The building is not equipped with a sprinkler system. Smith, who got to the landing between the second and third floors was forced to turn around when he realized he’d left his phone in Lust’s truck, and was unable to see in the near total darkness. Most of the neighbors came out running. When they made it to the parking lot they shared a few beers to relieve the stress of the incident while they waited for the fire department.

“After what we went through we had a few beers to relax, you’re so nervous you want a cigarette, even while the fire’s still going,” Lust said. “We’re all human and we can laugh because no one lost their life.”

Smith, who is disabled, has been a resident of the complex for the past three years. On Friday morning as he stood in the shattered doorframe of his third-floor apartment, he insisted that he wasn’t a hero, he was just doing what anyone else would’ve done. A self-described “night owl” if he hadn’t received his disability check earlier than he usually does, he would have still been at home when the fire began.

“I care about my neighbors, we’re like a family here,” Smith said. “I like to shop in the middle of the night when no one’s out.”

The fire, which caused an estimated $10,000 worth of damage is still under investigation, but officials said they suspect the cause is arson, and are asking for the public’s help in solving the crime. Smith said he’s convinced the fire was caused by arson, and this isn’t the first time the building has been vandalized. Earlier the week locks at the building were glued shut, and there has been other vandalism-related incidents over the years, he said.

“Whether they’re related or not you can’t tell, but it’s probably someone’s ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend,” Smith said.

Smith and Lust said the apartment manager at Meadowbrook Apartments has already been in communication with them about getting the door frame of their apartment repaired. Lust said he isn’t sure who the culprit is, but he’s hopeful the police will be able to make an arrest in the case.

“No one’s a superhero, we all just all worked together and no one died,” Lust said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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