Modesto apartment fire victim says she's lucky to be alive

MODESTO — The pounding on her door in the middle of the night told Modesto resident Michelle Gunkel something was terribly wrong.

The mother of three quickly grabbed her children and her cat and fled her apartment.

Minutes later, she watched as a fire that started in the unit above raced through her family room.

Gunkel, her children and a dozen other people were displaced by the early morning blaze Tuesday at the Park Brighton Apartments across the street from Downey Park, authorities said.

All the occupants, including nine children, got out in time and there were no injuries, according to Hugo Patino, battalion chief for the Modesto Fire Department.

At 1:13 a.m., firefighters were called to the complex at Coffee Road and Brighton Avenue after a report of a fire that started on the balcony of one of the upstairs units.

Upon arrival, they attacked the blaze, which had spread to Gunkel's apartment. Not knowing if all occupants were out safely, firefighters, battling heavy smoke, immediately searched the apartments and found that everyone had exited safely.

The woman in the apartment where the fire began, who asked not to be identified, said she was sleeping in the living room with her 10-month-old child when she heard a loud pop.

She said she looked outside and the "back porch was glowing."

She said the fire alarm did not sound until after she had alerted her neighbors and they were safely outside.

"If I hadn't heard that popping sound and woke up, I wouldn't even be standing here. I would be dead," she said while surveying the damage late Tuesday morning.

The two-alarm fire took about 30 minutes to contain. It helped firefighters that the building was right off the street.

Five engines, two trucks, two chief officers and a fire investigator responded, for a total of 25 fire personnel.

The two apartments were a loss. The four neighboring apartments on either side sustained smoke and water damage but Gunkel, the apartment manager, said they can be repaired.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Damage was estimated at $150,000.

The Red Cross of Stanislaus County is helping find emergency housing for the families.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at or 578-2366.

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