Family mourns loss of young son after Portage apartment fire
PORTAGE, Wis. — A family is mourning the loss of their little boy after an apartment fire in Portage Sunday morning, and more than 60 tenants are still unable to head home.
The fire began on the fifth floor of the Historic Apartments, also known as the Ram Hotel, in Chad Lawless and Tosha Force’s children’s room. They were unable to get their 20-month-old son, Damien, out in time.
“He brightened everyone’s day,” Lawless said. “He’s gonna be greatly missed. That was my boy.”
His parents remember Damien full of light.
“He was literally the sunshine of everybody’s lives,” Lawless said.
Lawless says his 4-year-old daughter woke him up Sunday morning, frantic. He saw flames in the doorway of his daughter and son’s room on the fifth floor of their apartment building.
“I jumped into action,” he said. “I couldn’t even breathe because there was so much smoke.”
Lawless said Force grabbed a fire extinguisher in the building, but when he tried to use it, it didn’t work properly.
“It was extremely terrifying,” Force said.
“It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered in my life,” Lawless said. “I wouldn’t wish that on any parent, ever. No parents should have to lose a child, especially that young.”
At shy of two-years-old, Damien died at the hospital.
“He didn’t deserve this, and I would’ve gladly traded my life for his in that moment,” Lawless said.
Along with that tragic loss, dozens of other residents are also out of a home, and the Red Cross is helping out by tending to immediate needs like food and housing, but also offering mental health care at Portage Presbyterian Church.
“Because is’ a pretty traumatic fire,” said Josh Kern, communications officer for the American Red Cross of Wisconsin. “Talking with some of the folks downstairs, they’re toughing it out, they’re toughing it out as much as they can.”
“As of this point, we’re practically homeless,” Lawless said. He’s hoping for some changes in his apartment building, including sprinklers in apartments.
Fire officials said the historic building is only required to have fire safety measures that were mandated when it was built.
“I definitely would like to see them update fire codes in this building, because I would hate to see this happen to another family,” Lawless said.
His family will never forget Damien – a boy whose bright future was snuffed out too soon.
‘He’s a guardian angel,” Lawless said.
Damien’s family has a Damien Lawless fund set up at Summit Credit Union at 110 Henry Drive in Portage. They also have a drop off box at Portage Mart at 601 Wisconsin Street.
The family is planning a candlelight vigil in Damien’s honor at the Chamber of Commerce Plaza across from the Ram Hotel apartments at 9 p.m. Monday.
Those interested in helping can take food to the Portage Food Pantry, bring clothes and supplies to St. Vincent de Paul or donate money to the Red Cross.
The Portage Fire Department said the cause of the fire was a child playing with matches.
Officials are working to get the building safe so residents can return.
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