Local News

Firefighters pluck two from burning building

Posted October 22, 2009 7:11 a.m. EDT
Updated October 22, 2009 4:55 p.m. EDT

— Firefighters rescued two people trapped on a third-floor balcony from a fire that displaced dozens of residents from SunStone Apartments in Chapel Hill early Thursday.

A resident at 208 Conner Drive smelled smoke on a lower balcony and called 911 at 4:32 a.m., said Lisa Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Chapel Hill Fire Department.

Thirty-three people and several pets got out of the building safely, but smoke and intense flames kept two from getting out their front door, Edwards said. Firefighters ran a ladder up to their balcony and got them out.

James Howard, a junior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said he and a visiting friend, William Fisher, were woken by the smoke alarm.

"I really wasn't sure what was going on," Fisher said. "Whenever I popped open the door, there was flames all outside the hall."

The apartment across from them was engulfed in flames, but they decided to run for it, the men said. Between them, they were wearing boxers, gym shorts, flip flops and a jacket and carrying one cell phone.

"(The fire) has started to come towards my apartment and the ceiling, too. I guess the corridor was already on fire, and we just ran under it," Howard said.

The men suffered minor burns while escaping.

Twelve of the 24 units in the building had extensive damage, and the remainder were also rendered uninhabitable, Edwards said. The back side of the building was mostly gutted.

Firefighters from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham and New Hope worked together to douse the blaze. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, Edwards said.

Red Cross officials said they were helping between 40 and 50 displaced people find food and shelter.

Howard had to call his roommate, who was at home for fall break.

"I tried not to freak him out. I told him there was a fire, and we might need to move," Howard said.

Investigators are looking into reports that the fire started on a balcony, Edwards said. The cause of the fire hasn't been determined.

The apartment building, which is part of a larger complex, did not have sprinklers.

Fisher recalled his losses – "laptop, bookbag, some school work" – and counted himself as "lucky to be alive."

"I feel grateful, I guess, most of all," he said.