From the balcony of her Ashton Ridge apartment, Buchanan saw smoke, and she opened her front door to find a fog of fumes spewing from the hallway.
“I was scared — I didn’t know what was going on,” said the 28-year-old Buchanan. “I just knew something was wrong, and we had to get out.”
Buchanan and the residents of 18 other units all escaped with their lives but little else after a fire quickly spread through the three-story apartment building at 2520 Callier Springs Road early Monday, gutting the top floor and leaving nearly 40 people without a home.
“As quick as it spread, I’m really amazed nobody got hurt,” said resident Ricky Black, who got his girlfriend and three children out of their apartment when he heard the fire trucks arrive. “If I hadn’t heard the sirens, I don’t know what would have happened.”
About 5:50 a.m., close to 50 firefighters arrived at the scene to find the building ablaze. All the residents had managed to escape without injury, said Deputy Fire Chief Gordon Henderson.
Fire Investigator Vann Baxter said Monday evening he was still working to determine the cause of the fire. It started in an apartment on the south side of the building’s lower level, he said.
Henderson said it took the firefighters about 45 minutes to get the fire under control, but not before it had gutted the top floor and damaged all the apartments in the unit.
The building will probably have to be demolished, Floyd County Emergency Management Director Scotty Hancock said.
Volunteers and officials from the American Red Cross were at the scene to help families find temporary housing, food and clothing, said Molly Collins, the agency’s emergency services director.
About 13 of the displaced families will be able to stay at vacant units in the other apartment buildings at Ashton, said Kristen Diamond-Sneed, a representative of Ambling Management, the company that owns the apartment complex.
Baxter said the building didn’t have firewalls or sprinklers, but county building codes don’t require them.
Fire walls might have helped slow the fire, he said, but the wind was the biggest factor in spreading the blaze.
A few hours after the fire, many of the residents nursed cups of coffee as they milled about the apartment leasing office, many of them barefoot or wearing clothes donated by neighbors.
“We have lost everything. My granddaughter doesn’t have anything to wear but what she’s got on,” said resident Fae Office, who was running an errand when her 5-year-old and 16-year-old granddaughters escaped the fire.
As evidence of the speed of the blaze, Office produced an ATM receipt that showed she had been at a nearby bank at 5:50 a.m. when the fire started. When she first smelled the smoke, she assumed the bank was on fire before driving back to her home that was by then engulfed in flames.
“I saw it, and I started screaming and crying,” she said. “My two granddaughters were in there, and I didn’t know anyone could get out.”
Her 16-year-old granddaughter, Whitney Crawford, said she was awoken by a fire alarm and went to her cousin’s room to find a large table ablaze.
“The fire was going up to the ceiling, and I was terrified,” Crawford said. “It all happened so fast.”
She grabbed her cousin and went to a neighbor’s place to call 911 before running down the smoky stairways to safety, she said.
Stacey McDaniel, Black’s girlfriend, said she woke up to a neighbor pounding on her door and saw sparks in a nearby window.
“All I could think was just to get the kids and get them out of there,” she said. “There was black smoke everywhere, sparks blowing by, and you could really feel the heat.”
She said the fire left her family with almost nothing: a kindly neighbor provided the flip-flops McDaniel and her daughter were wearing, she said.
Though many possessions were lost and lives will have to be rebuilt, many of the Ashton Ridge residents said they felt lucky to be alive.
“It’s too late to worry about everything that’s up there,” said Office. “I just thank God that we’re all alive.