Fire drives residents from their homes

Jan. 28, 2013 @ 06:24 PM

A morning fire damaged nine condominiums Monday at the University Garden Condominiums near Umstead Road.

EMS crews stood by in case they were needed, but there were no reports that either firefighters or residents needed their assistance.

“We have no idea what sparked this fire,” said Lisa Edwards, public information officer for the Chapel Hill Fire Department, shortly after the fire was extinguished.

Six condo units were damaged by smoke, water and fire, and smoke damaged three additional units, Edwards said.

When firefighters arrived at 800 Pritchard Ave. Ext. at 10:06 a.m., fire was shooting through the roof of the three-story brick apartment building. Many people had already evacuated, but Deputy Fire Marshall Johnny Parker went door to door pounding on the doors to make sure everyone was out, Edwards said.

The firefighters brought the fire under control within an hour and were able to keep it from spreading to the rest of the units in the building.

Although each unit is a condominium, many are rented as apartments. Rachel Wasserman, a graduate student at UNC, was in her apartment when she heard someone pounding on her door.

“I smelled smoke, and I looked out and saw the fire truck and realized I had to leave,” Wasserman said.

She dressed quickly and rushed out of her upstairs unit leaving everything behind, including her identification, her cell phone and laptop computer.

“The pounding just sort of made me panic,” she said.  

Unless items can be salvaged from her apartment later, she was left with just the clothes she was wearing.

“They always say don’t grab your stuff, just get out, so that’s what I did,” Wasserman said.

As firefighters worked on the fire, she saw them cut through the roof above her unit and spray water inside, so she believes that all of her belongings have been damaged or destroyed.

Her unit was across the hallway from the unit that appeared to be most heavily damaged.

Erik Ahlstrom, who lived in that unit, had just left to take his former roommate Pavielle Williamson to work, and by the time they got there, they had received word the building was on fire, so they rushed back.

Williamson’s cat, Pattycakes, was in the apartment. They were happy that Ahlstrom’s dog had been rescued, but Williamson sat quietly on the steps of a nearby unit worrying about her cat, which she hadn’t been able to find.

Suddenly a firefighter called out that he had a cat. Ahlstrom and Williamson ran over to the firefighter. At first Williamson couldn’t see whether the cat was hers because her view was blocked, but when she reached the firefighter, she saw it was Pattycakes.

The firefighter handed the cat over, and Williamson sobbed with joy as she cradled her cat in her arms and carried it away from the burnt building.

“It feels wonderful,” she said. “Nothing else matters.”

The firefighter told her that they found the cat under a bed in Wasserman’s apartment. Apparently the cat had rushed out of the burning unit and found safety in the apartment next door.

During the cleanup, another woman came running to the fire scene with a panicked look on her face.

“My dogs are in there!” she cried out to a firefighter.

“Three little dogs?” he said.

“Yes!” she said.

“We’ve got them,” he said.

She slipped under the yellow fire-scene tape and the firefighter led her past the burnt units to the dogs.

A minute or two later, she and another man came back, carrying a dog crate with a blanket over it. She had a look of relief on her face.

Yes, the dogs were OK, she said.

Last week, the Chapel Hill Fire Department conducted its annual inspection of the University Garden Condominiums. All the smoke alarms were working correctly, and the inspectors recommended the occupants purchase fire extinguishers, Edwards said.

The Town of Chapel Hill does not require landlords to supply fire extinguishers, but the fire department recommends people buy them for their own units, Edwards said.

Edwards didn’t know whether having a fire extinguisher would have been helpful in stopping the fire before it spread, she said.

“It depends on if someone was home and how it started,’ she said.

Units 13-18 in Building A were damaged.

The Red Cross was on the scene, providing food, water and blankets and help to people who had to evacuate their homes. The Red Cross arranges for temporary housing and provides people with food and toiletry kits.

Eric Plow, who said he owned about half the units that were damaged, said he had received calls from other landlords letting him know that they had units available for rent.

One damaged unit is owned by Empowerment, Inc., which helps provide affordable housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.