City fire officials said it could be a while before they know what caused one of the city’s largest fires in nearly a century, as firefighters continued to pour water on the smoldering remains of an unfinished 241-unit apartment building downtown Friday.
The fire, which appeared in amateur photos to have started on the second floor, quickly consumed the empty five-story, wood-frame building, creating an inferno that could be seen for miles. The heat caused a construction crane over the site to buckle and collapse, and scorched the walls and shattered windows of nearby buildings. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated from restaurants, apartments and condos.
Still, the outcome could have been much worse, said Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath. The crane fell without hitting any of the firefighters or the adjacent apartment building, and aside from a firefighter who was cut by falling glass and five cases of smoke inhalation, no one was injured or killed.
Another lucky break for firefighters: The winds that had been gusty for several days were calmed by Thursday night.
“Wind can cause a fire to spread more quickly than we can get ahead of it sometimes,” McGrath said. “And last night we were extremely fortunate.”
The fire was reported shortly after 10 p.m. in the The Metropolitan, the apartment building that was expected to be completed this year at the corner of West Jones and Harrington streets, a block east of the 42nd Street Oyster Bar. A man who called 911 from The West, a nearby condominium building, said the fire was spreading quickly through the incomplete building.
“The building’s half built. It’s all stick,” said the caller, whose name was not released. “I mean, this thing is going to be up, and it’s going to be huge. The flames are already 20 feet in the air.”
At the height of the blaze, more than 100 firefighters surrounded the complex, dumping water from aerial ladders to try to keep the fire from jumping to nearby buildings, McGrath said. Despite those efforts, the fire torched the side of the six-story Link Apartments across North Harrington Street and gutted parts of The Metropolitan’s closest neighbor, the headquarters of the N.C. League of Municipalities.
On Friday, firefighters worked their way through The Quorum Center, a 15-story office and condominium building across Jones Street, knocking out glass that had been shattered by the intense heat and left hanging precariously above Jones Street.
The site drew crowds Friday, as people who live and work downtown came to see the site that had so dramatically dominated the news. Among those on the sidewalks were residents of the Quorum and the Link who waited outside their buildings hoping city inspectors would give them the all-clear to go back inside.
But the buildings still lack power and are unsafe, said city officials. Firefighters will escort residents back into their homes for a short time Saturday to get some of their belongings, the city announced late Friday. Meanwhile, police have secured the two complexes.
$51 million project
The Metropolitan is owned by Chicago-based Banner Apartments, which opened The Lincoln Apartments on the east side of downtown in July 2015. The company paid $4.8 million for the 1.72-acre site of the former Greyhound bus terminal and $1.385 million for two other adjacent properties totaling .27 acres.
Site plans called for The Metropolitan to have about 270,000 square feet of space surrounding a courtyard. The $51 million project was to feature studio, 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, a rooftop deck and a golf simulator, the company said in a press release, and was scheduled to open this fall.
William Henry, president of Banner Development, said he knew the situation could have been much worse.
“There was no loss of life, and that’s what we’ve got to be grateful for,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are plenty of sticks and bricks to rebuild with, and that’s our intended goal.”
Henry said the building was about 40 percent complete. Now, he said, the company will wait for fire investigators to complete their work, and then will assess the damage and the structural integrity of what remains.
“We’ll see what needs to be taken out and what we can keep,” Henry said. It could be that only foundations remain, he added, but construction can restart from those.
The Metropolitan was at the point where it still lacked fire prevention systems such as sprinklers and fire resistant walls, and burned quickly, McGrath said. But it was compliant with what fire codes required at the stage of construction and had been inspected as recently as Monday, he said.
The fire consumed most of the four upper floors made of wood, while the complex’s concrete first floor, parking deck, stairwells and elevator shaft remained standing.
Raleigh Fire Department Division Chief John Fanning said Friday that in his 24 years as a firefighter in the city, nothing compared to Thursday night. “This is the biggest fire that I have seen,” he said.
Fanning said the site would likely continue smoking for at least a day, and fire crews would be pouring water on the rubble to keep it from reigniting. He encouraged people to avoid the area to allow fire crews and investigators to do their work.
“Not all of the time, but most of the time, we can pretty much determine what caused that fire,” he said. “But it will take a little bit because we need to be thorough.”
‘A towering inferno’
The fire drew crowds from the nearby Glenwood South district of bars and restaurants, as well as other apartment and condominium buildings.
“You don’t expect to walk outside and see a towering inferno,” said Scott Shook, president of the N.C. Community Colleges Board, who was eating dinner at the 42nd Street Oyster Bar when the fire erupted.
Debris and smoke was blown for blocks in each direction and police worked to keep bystanders back, warning them of the danger of sparks and flying objects.
“We heard two booms and then a crane fell,” said Justin Archangel, 21, on spring break from Washington, D.C. “We saw sparks flying in the air from two blocks away.”
Edenton Street was littered with charred bits of debris. “There were chunks burning about three feet wide,” said Torrin McBynum, 45, of Garner.
Residents of nearby apartments were jolted awake by light and noise. Power was out in nearby apartment complexes and traffic lights were dark because of fire-related outages.
Andrew Puckett, 26, lives on the fifth floor of the Link Apartments. He was in bed when a co-worker called him after 10 p.m. He ignored the call and the sound of neighbors rumbling in the hallway.
“I heard all the noise but I was like screw it, I want to sleep,” Puckett said. He eventually stirred and took refuge at MoJoe’s Burger Joint on Glenwood South.
“It was surreal,” Puckett said, “because I have a window into the courtyard and saw this orange light.”
Staff writers Josh Shaffer, Martha Quillin, Paul A. Specht, Mandy Locke and Sarah Nagem contributed to this story.