Living downtown, where sirens wail constantly, Lauren Picone shrugged off the fire alarm at first. But it kept wailing, and her bulldog kept barking, so she stepped out on her fifth-floor balcony to investigate.
A wall of flame roared back.
Panicked, she grabbed her dog, Geno, and shot downstairs on the elevator. Her building, Link Apartments, stood across South Harrington Street from a blaze that consumed an unfinished five-story apartment building – so hot that it pulled down a construction crane and busted windows up and down the face of a 15-story building across the street.
But once Picone got outside, she realized she’d forgotten her car keys. So she handed Geno to a neighbor and ran back in.
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“The power shut off while I was on the elevator,” said Picone, 30. “The doors opened on the elevator and on the second floor, I ran to the stairwell that was closest to the fire and I could see the flames hitting the wall through the window, and I also could see the Quorum Center windows shattering. So I was thinking that could happen at any time here. So I ran back upstairs, grabbed my car keys, ran back down the five flights of stairs and decided there was no way I could get my car out.”
Picone, Geno and hundreds of other residents escaped serious injury Thursday night in what some Raleigh firefighters described as the worst blaze they’d ever seen.
Amanda Weigle and some friends were watching the end of an NCAA basketball game in her fifth-floor apartment in the Link when she noticed the bright light through the curtains. The flames were already as high as the crane that towered over the construction site across the street.
“That thing was raging,” said Weigle, who briefly stepped out on her balcony before fleeing the building. “It felt like I was standing in front of a bonfire. It was hot as hell.”
By Friday morning, the Link Apartments building they had escaped was black on its east side, many of the windows broken out and the Venetian blinds melted.
“See that sheet right there?” said Picone, standing a block away. “The one hanging down? That’s my sheet. My patio is torched.” Her husband, she noted, had been out of town.
“We just got married.”
The Red Cross set up a relief station with snacks, supplies and – crucially for the displaced downtown – free internet. Google Fiber on Glenwood South also offered online access and open desks.
Meanwhile, Edenton Street United Methodist Church, whose sidewalks were stained black and gray with ash, was closed Friday without power. All around the wreckage, residents gathered to stare and consider their luck: What if the crane had fallen on top of someone? What if the fire had raged with the same winds that blew through Raleigh on Wednesday?
Around the corner on Jones Street, Will Barbee surveyed the wreckage Friday with his King Edward spaniel, Buster. Hours earlier, he had watched the Metropolitan apartments project burn from the ninth floor of the Quorum Center, where he and his wife, Christie, share a condominium. They joined neighbors watching the blaze from a window high above, caught up in the spectacle.
“It started getting bigger and bigger and hotter and hotter,” he recalled. “I was strangely calm. Then came the realization we had to get out of there.”
Christie had already fled the building with Buster. So he and his neighbors filed down nine flights of stairs, Barbee carrying his cat, Jack, bundled inside his jacket.
“Buster handled it with his usual aplomb,” he said. “The cat is the cat.”
Temperatures dipped into the 20s as residents fled into the streets. Icicles hung from buildings as water from fire trucks dripped down their sides.
“I grabbed my coat and my cat – no shoes,” said Lexi Santiago, a Link resident. “I’m wearing my friend’s boyfriend’s shoes. Just booked it down the stairs. I thought my legs were going to give out.”
Some escapees spent the night at the Holiday Inn or Hampton Inn nearby or bunked with friends. But for residents such as Picone, who moved to her apartment in July, the Link provided a haven beyond a roof and four walls.
“The Link Apartments is my favorite thing about Raleigh,” she said. “Everyone is so close. Everyone is transplanted. So we’re all trying to make friends. The apartment managers are friends. They even babysit my dog.”
Staff writers Madison Iszler and Richard Stradling contributed.