Fire puts apartment tenants out of homes in Durham

No injuries reported; investigators try to determine the cause of the blaze

Staff WritersApril 7, 2005 

Fire destroyed a building at the Royal Oaks Apartments in South Durham, leaving tenants in 19 units homeless Wednesday evening.

No one was injured in the blaze, said Edward Reid, assistant fire marshal for the Durham Fire Department. Although 19 of the 20 units in building 3521 had tenants, it was not clear Wednesday how many people were at home when the fire erupted about 5:10 p.m.

Officials had not determined what caused the fire or where it started, Reid said. Firefighters, who were interviewing residents Wednesday, will not know the cause of the blaze until today when their investigation is complete, Reid said.

Officials did not know how many people live in the building, which sits across a fence from Durham Academy Middle School.

A plume of dark smoke was visible for miles during rush hour and a light breeze moved black clouds toward U.S. 15-501, decreasing visibility for drivers who approached the apartment complex on Mayfair Street.

Bernard Militala, 38, a restaurant manger in Durham, lived in the building with his wife and three children. Militala's wife called him Wednesday afternoon and said she had heard an explosion in the apartment upstairs, he said. She was still in the home, so Militala instructed her to get what she could, grab the kids and get out.

After arriving home, Militala watched the fire from a distance as his children played nearby in a grassy area. His 4-year-old son, Benson, carried a green dinosaur.

"When I got here [Benson] was crying for his toys that were in the house," Militala said.

The apartments had a brick firewall in the middle of the building, but the flames reached outside and managed to go around the wall, Reid said. The units did not contain sprinkler systems but did have fire alarms. Reid said he did not know whether the alarms had sounded.

Ten fire units, which included two ladder trucks, extinguished the blaze in 45 minutes, Reid said. Firefighters continued to douse hot spots, and the building smoldered for several more hours.

The Red Cross was also at the scene Wednesday night.

Jay Odeh, 40, had returned home to the Royal Oaks after a day's work at a Durham distribution center, but he was stopped at the complex's entrance by police.

Wednesday evening, Odeh stood on a hill, smoked a cigarette, took pictures of his burning apartment and called friends. While Odeh was watched the firefighters douse the blaze, the roof collapsed, he said.

"I don't have a lot of furniture, so my only concern is people," said Odeh, who moved to the apartment complex four months ago from Chicago.

Kim Schafer, a fourth-grade teacher at Forest View Elementary does not live at the complex but came to the fire because many of her students do live there, she said. By about 7 p.m. she had not located any of her students.

"I just wanted to try to help in any way possible," she said. "When you spend six to seven hours a day with these kids, you get pretty attached."

Staff writer Benjamin Niolet can be reached at 956-2404 or bniolet@newsobserver.com.

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