All 12 units of a North Raleigh apartment building were left uninhabitable by a fast-burning fire Monday afternoon that fire investigators pinned on improperly discarded smoking material.
Fire department investigators, who combed through the building along with staff from the county fire marshal’s office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Monday night that the fire was accidental and was caused by someone improperly disposing of smoking material.
A maintenance man at the Cambridge Apartments, off Six Forks Road, alerted some residents to the blaze. In at least one unit, no alarm had sounded minutes before the fire burst through the building’s roof, according to one renter.
No injuries were reported in the fire, which was called in at 2:19 p.m. An hour later, shaken and emotional people watched from behind yellow police tape as the last fire crews sprayed down the building’s torched top floor.
Lisa Forsberg, 33, was home sick in her and her boyfriend’s second-floor apartment when she heard strange thuds outside, she said.
“I heard stuff falling onto my porch,” she said. At first she thought the people above her were making noise.
“I open my door to yell at my neighbors, and I hear a man say I need to get out,” Forsberg said. Grabbing her shoes, purse and jacket, she fled down a smoke-filled stairway.
The apartments, built in 1994, don’t have interconnected fire alarms, meaning that a fire in one unit won’t necessarily trip alarms in the rest of the building, according to Capt. Jamie Hill, a deputy fire marshal.
Interconnected alarms are now required in new buildings, he said.
Once Forsberg reached the parking lot, she encountered one of the community’s maintenance workers. He went through the entire building looking for stragglers, Forsberg said.
Fire crews arrived soon afterward, clocking in at 2:23 p.m., four minutes after the initial 911 call. Minutes after that, the fire appeared to destroy most of the building’s roof, Forsberg said.
When they arrived, some of the firefighters extended their trucks’ ladders and sprayed water into the building, while others rushed in, checking for survivors and struggling to breach the fiery third floor, according to Division Chief Rob Johnson.
“It was a roaring fire,” Forsberg said.
It took between 20 and 30 minutes before the blaze was under control, witnesses said. Though no one was seriously injured, emergency responders used oxygen to resuscitate three pets, Johnson said. About a dozen fire units responded.
Hill, the deputy marshal, suspects the fire started on a balcony and burned through the attic area, which includes loft sections of some of the 12 units. An investigation into its cause continues, he said.
The two-alarm fire appears to have tripped only some of the apartments’ sprinklers, possibly because it burned largely in the attic, Johnson said.
James Milliner, 26, and Mike Willis, 24, said their top-floor unit was destroyed.
“I just lost everything I owned, bro,” Milliner told his roommate.
“Me too, bro,” Willis replied. The feeling, he said, was “unearthly, surreal.”
And devastating, Milliner added.