Fire forces infant, other people to jump from windows of burning Raleigh apartments

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2014 

— An infant survived a three-story fall from a burning Raleigh apartment building late Sunday night as flames forced people trapped on the top floor to jump from windows.

No one was seriously injured, but the fire at 611 Peyton St. left 51 people without housing.

Edward Banegas, a mechanic, said he woke around midnight Sunday to the sounds of the fast-spreading inferno above his ground-floor apartment.

“I heard a lot of screaming outside. The windows were cracking,” Banegas recalled as he sat on the hood of his car Monday afternoon, watching as men shuttled televisions and mattresses from the brick building.

By the time he got his wife and two children outside, people were leaping from the top windows of the three-story, 45-year-old building, some into blankets or onto air mattresses.

One man appeared at his window with flames licking behind him, Banegas said. In desperation, the man threw his infant child – but the people on the ground couldn’t catch the baby, he said.

“He threw his sons out, and then he threw himself,” the mechanic said. Hours later, the man told Banegas at the hospital that the infant and his older children would be released from medical care within days, Banegas said. The man could not be reached for comment Monday.

The fire may have started with a stray cigarette, said Francisco Cuevas, 18, who lives in a neighboring building. A Raleigh fire inspector told him that someone had dropped the lit smoke in the top-floor hall, catching the carpet on fire, he said. The Fire Department has not said what caused the fire.

The smoke set off alarms, and Cuevas’ friend opened his apartment door to check, Cuevas said. Opening the door seemed to bring a blast of air that turned the fire into an inferno, leaving second-degree burns on the man’s leg, Cuevas said.

Oliver Rodriguez, 12, was asleep in his top-floor apartment as the fire spread.

“I heard my godsister scream, then I heard my nephew cry,” said Oliver, a student at Poe Elementary School who gathered with a dozen neighbors in front of the building, which is called Hamlett Arms in county records.

“I was scared to jump, but when I opened the door, flames came in,” he said. His family threw blankets to the ground, and some of the people who had gathered below stretched them into make-shift trampolines.

With smoke seeping through the complex, Rodriguez prepared to leap.

“I go first. I always go first,” he said. “I told my mom I was going to go.”

Then he was airborne, feeling for a second like a superhero, he said, landing safely in the blanket below.

At their peak, the flames roared from several of the buildings’ top-floor windows, reaching high into the air. Alberto Chavez, meanwhile, was charging through the building to find any stragglers, and then to another building for an extension ladder.

“I did not do much,” said Chavez, a middle-aged construction worker, tugging at a paint-spattered jacket. “It happens in minutes.”

Raleigh firefighters showed up within minutes and had the blaze controlled quickly, witnesses said. But the damage to some of the top-floor apartments was absolute, and one of the interior staircases was left impassable.

A thick, ashy mud lined the top floor Monday afternoon, as light spilled in through the blasted-out holes where windows used to be. One apartment was relatively untouched, with magazines still spread across its living room table, but others were blackened.

“They jumped from here,” Cuevas said, peering down from his injured friend’s window toward the apartment’s yard.

For all the devastation, though, some of the apartment’s residents felt they had gotten off easy. The Red Cross helped many families find places to live, and the building’s owner, David House, will put others in nearby apartments, the building’s residents said.

“(He’ll) try to work with us,” Chavez said.

All 12 of the building’s units have been vacated. The same building burned in 2010, displacing 24 people, according to a Raleigh Fire Department report. The report blames the 2010 blaze on an “equipment or heat source” failure.

David House LLC owns a nearly identical adjacent apartment building and one across the street. The building that burned does not have a sprinkler system, according to the Fire Department’s report.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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