She jumped from the third story of a burning single-stair apartment building and doesn’t want others to have to do the same

Proponents of taller single stair buildings say they are a smart, safe way to create more naturally affordable housing, citing low mortality rates. But death isn’t the only safety issue.
8 min. read
Denise Surina in the back yard of the home she shares with her mother in Denver’s Hampden neighborhood. April 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Colorado’s debate over fixing the affordable housing crisis by adding taller single-stair apartment buildings dredged up Denise Surina’s memory of the fire — and the fall.  

The fire happened six months after Denise Surina moved into apartment 312 in the Kennedy Ridge Apartments in Southeast Denver. She lived there with her two cats and two dogs, her late husband’s belongings and her many artworks. There was just one staircase in the building. The only other exits from her place were the windows. 

Her downstairs neighbors, in apartment 212, often smoked behind flags hung for privacy. One night, as they often did, they put out their cigarettes in flower planters, according to a Denver Fire Department investigation. A couple of hours later, the planters ignited. The flags caught fire. 

Flames climbed up the balcony to Surina’s porch. She woke to the noise of crackling fire.

“I ran out to the living room and saw a ball of fire on my balcony,” she said.

The apartment complex at Dartmouth Avenue and Havana Street in Denver's Kennedy neighborhood where Denise Surina once lived, and had to jump out of a window during a fire in 2012. April 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

She tried to escape through the door, but the hallway was filled with smoke, and she couldn’t reach the single staircase in her building.

Black smoke engulfed her. She slammed the door, hit the ground, and crawled, as fire burned along the ceiling. 

Finally, she made it to her bedroom. She looked out the window, and the firefighters were not there. A couple of neighbors were beneath her window, holding a comforter. First, she threw her two dogs, Skipper and Jimo, out the window. They survived the fall. 

She wasn’t ready to jump herself, even as her neighbors begged her to do so. She hoped firefighters would rescue her, but they were on the other side of the building battling flames. She wanted to stay until they could rescue the cats. But they didn’t come. 

Denise Surina in the back yard of the home she shares with her mother in Denver's Hampden neighborhood. April 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“I waited as long as possible, but then I turned around and lowered myself,” she recalled. “I was hanging from my fingertips and dropped down so they caught me in the blanket. I injured my right knee. I tore my meniscus.” 

Eventually, the firefighters saved the cats. Other neighbors were injured escaping the building. Surina was taken to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation. 

Nobody died. But death isn’t the only harm caused by a home fire, she said. She wouldn’t wish what she’s suffered on anybody. 

Homes like the one she lived in, that burned, are legal to build now. Lawmakers are currently proposing cities across Colorado allow single-stair buildings to go even higher and will discuss the issue in committee on Wednesday.

“When I saw they were going to build more, it was just horrifying to me,” she said. “Because you know, there's no way out. It's pretty scary.” 

Fires happen. But the single-stair buildings lawmakers are debating are well-tested structures. 

Tall single-stair buildings are popular throughout Europe and Seattle. They fall outside of International Building Code rules that limit such buildings to three stories high. 

The newer builds boast fire sprinklers, alarms and other technologies to prevent fires. They incorporate technology that removes smoke from stairwells in case evacuation is needed. And those stairwells are placed close to apartment entries for easy access.  

Proponents, like affordable housing developer Peter LiFari and architect Sean Jursnick, argue single-stair buildings are a safe, smart solution to the lack of housing for working people. These buildings would give smaller developers a chance to contribute to the city’s affordable housing shortage. 

Architect Sean Jursnick and developer Peter LiFari stand in front of a huge apartment project and a small single-stair apartment building on Downing Street in Capitol Hill. March 6, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

“We could have gentle-touch density that would add charm to the neighborhood character instead,” YIMBY Denver member Luchia Brown testified at the Statehouse. 

Rep. Alex Valdez, one of the bill’s cosponsors, told lawmakers a statewide building code model would speed up the construction of needed housing in cities across Colorado. The lack of affordable housing requires an urgent response, and this is one of several solutions lawmakers are considering in this session. 

David Pardo, chief operating officer of the accessory-dwelling-unit company Nookhaus and former wildland firefighter, argued at the Statehouse that single-family homes on the border of cities and wildlands, where working people live, are much more dangerous than single-stair buildings in urban areas.

“When we fail to build family-friendly dwellings in well-protected cities, families without significant resources end up in these types of homes, and our wildland firefighters will end up paying the price for that development with their lives,” said Pardo. 

Single-stair apartment buildings are nothing new in Denver. Capitol Hill is full of such homes. The city’s current zoning code allows them to be built up to three stories high — the same height as Surina’s former apartment. 

The new law would allow builders to add just two more stories of housing. The five stories could be built from the ground up or on top of ground-floor retail, creating a building with up to six stories.  

Multiple urban fire departments, including Denver’s, have been arguing against changing the rules. 

Sure, there are fire prevention technologies that reduce the risk of fires implemented since the ban on single-stair multi-family construction above three stories was enacted. But in the case of a fire, more access points, firefighters argue, are always better and minimize injury. 

It’s safer for residents to be able to exit themselves without waiting for firefighters. In a mass shooting, having one exit could be deadly. 

“In our industry, we say the building and fire codes are written with the blood of people's lives,” said Elizabeth Fire Chief Kara Brzezinski. “We take the development code process very seriously.”

Proponents say the fears, expressed by firefighters, are overblown, conservative and undermine a fix on a much more urgent crisis: the lack of affordable housing that’s led to rampant homelessness.

Single-stair advocates point to studies that indicate cities with single-staircase apartments have fewer fire deaths than Denver.

“In Spain and Italy, for example, one or two units are often on each of eight or even 12 floors,” Pardo said. “Both of those countries have one-third the rate of fire deaths per capita that we have here in the United States. South Korea and Switzerland have no height limit on single-stair buildings, and their fire death rates are one-half and one-fifth that of the United States respectively.”

Death isn’t the only bad outcome from an apartment fire that lawmakers should be weighing, Surina said. 

Three weeks after the fire a company doing the cleaning gave her and her daughter hazmat suits so they could go into the apartment and retrieve their belongings. Doing so was against the law, but Surina was grateful for the chance. 

Many of her belongings had already been looted. They couldn’t salvage any of Surina’s husband’s things, but she did manage to retrieve some of her art. 

“Your life is completely changed,” she said. “Because you have nothing. You're starting from nothing.” 

Surina’s mom, who had watched the fire consume the building, lived across the street. Surina moved in and has been living there since. 

Eventually, she declared bankruptcy, as did the people in the apartment below hers. She tried to sue, along with one of her neighbors, taking legal action against the landlords because fire alarms didn’t go off. 

After her neighbor passed away, Surina dropped the case. 

For more than a decade, she was scared of tall buildings, but slowly she’s recovering from a trauma she doesn’t want others to experience. 

 “I’m finally getting human again,” she said. 

Denise Surina in front of the home she shares with her mother in Denver's Hampden neighborhood. April 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Colorado Public Radio’s Andrew Kenney contributed reporting to this story.

Update: This story has been updated with David Pardo's most recent job title.

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