When firefighters arrived at the massive fire in downtown Raleigh on Thursday night, they had a plan: prevent the fire from spreading to offices and occupied residential buildings.
More than 100 Raleigh firefighters responded around 10 p.m. to the fire at 314 Jones St., where flames engulfed The Metropolitan, an under-construction five-story apartment building.
“The first thing we think of is do no further harm,” Fire Chief John McGrath said at a press conference Friday. “Cut the fire off, and that’s what our companies did.”
Crews sprayed water on the Link Apartments building and the Residences at Quorum Center, both across the street from the fire. The buildings were evacuated and sustained some damage, including shattered windows.
Fire Capt. Paul Wyatt, whose engine was the first to arrive, said he knew immediately it would be pointless to focus on the burning Metropolitan.
“It made my job easier to write that building completely off,” he said.
Wyatt and his group first sprayed water on a building near the corner of Jones and Dawson streets that houses the N.C. League of Municipalities. They switched their focus when they noticed the second floor of the Quorum was on fire.
“Just as we were doing that, the radiant heat was starting to melt my gear,” Wyatt said. “I could smell it.”
Then a firefighter yelled that a construction crane was falling.
“All we could see when we looked up was fire and smoke, so we had no idea which way it was falling,” Wyatt said.
His thoughts turned to his wife, who is expected to give birth to their first child – a girl – any day now.
“Not knowing where that crane is, there was that couple seconds of thinking about my daughter, if I’d see her,” Wyatt said. “We had to run toward the fire engine initially to hopefully shield us.”
The crane landed near the Link building, and no one was injured.
It took three hours for firefighters to control the fire, which McGrath called the biggest blaze the city has seen since the 1920s. The cause of the fire is unknown.
The under-construction building was vulnerable because it was framed with wood instead of steel, and the open walls allowed oxygen to fuel the flames, McGrath said.
“I’ll say we’ll probably be putting water on that building for 12 to 15 hours before we can actually get in there,” McGrath said Friday morning.
Nick Campasano, an eight-year veteran firefighter, wasn’t scheduled to work Thursday night, but he and several other off-duty firefighters chose to help fight the fire. Campasano said he arrived shortly after midnight from his Holly Springs home to find an orange sky above the Glenwood South neighborhood.
It looked like a “war zone,” Campasano said, adding that he had never seen anything like it. He hopes to never see anything like it again.
“There was a sound of fire alarms in the distance. You could hear engines and flowing water. It was kind of eerie,” he said. “The guys that were there on the initial alarm, they did such an unbelievable job of keeping those other buildings from burning down.”
Campasano said he entered the office building on Jones Street and “it looked like a bomb went off.”
“The roof was sagging down on the inside,” he said. “There was just glass and debris and ash everywhere. Everywhere you stepped you were stepping on something.”
Embers started small fires on top of two nearby churches, but firefighters quickly put them out, said Lt. Shawn Burns, who leads the Raleigh Professional Fire Fighters Association.
“The problem when you have that much of a fuel load is from radiant heat and flying embers,” Burns said. “There were several fires started a block or blocks away from embers landing on the roof.”
At least eight fire departments throughout the Triangle sent crews to cover Raleigh’s fire stations while city crews responded to the five-alarm fire, Burns said.
“If you didn’t have the guys from the other towns back-fill our stations, the whole city would have been without coverage,” he said.
Residents and businesses have been quick to show their appreciation for firefighters.
Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, along with Clyde Cooper’s BBQ and The Big Easy, plan to host a dinner at the Fayetteville Street tavern from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $12 each, and Raleigh firefighters can eat for free.
Money raised will go toward helping the Raleigh Fire Department and residents affected by the fire.
“The brave men and women of the Raleigh Fire Department battled the blaze moments after it started, and successfully snuffed the flames before they could spread even further,” Isaac Hunter’s Tavern said in a statement.
Rise Donuts in Cameron Village on Friday is offering free sandwiches and drinks to all of Raleigh’s emergency responders.