Local News

Investigators Find Fire Cause; Burned-Out Residents Find Very Little

Posted February 23, 2007 6:38 a.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2007 11:33 a.m. EST

— State and local authorities combed through the remains of the Pine Knoll Townes complex for hours Friday before determining that the fire was an accident.

Residents made homeless by the fire also walked through what was—or wasn't—left of their lives in their new homes.

The investigators were able to achieve more closure than many of the residents. The officials' conclusion was that the wall of flames that ripped through the north Raleigh townhouse complex Thursday was "carelessly discarded smoking material," they said.

"Anytime you have a preventable fire, you want to say, 'They should've known better.' But we're all human," Assistant Raleigh Fire Chief Larry Stanford said.

"Everything is burnt. Everything is gone. It's terrible," resident Juanita Williams said.

Witnesses told investigators that a group of people were smoking outside one of the townhouses shortly before the fire broke out. But authorities aren't sure if those people are linked to the fire.

Stanford said no criminal charges are expected in the case.

The fire broke out Thursday afternoon at the complex, located a block west of the intersection of Old Buffaloe Road and Capital Boulevard. Twenty-seven units were destroyed and 11 more damaged by the fire, which involved at least three rows of townhouses.

Beazer Homes USA, the developer of the complex, said 20 of the units were occupied and five had been completed but were unsold.

Dozens left homeless

Firefighters escorted residents through the site so they could retrieve anything that could be salvaged.

"My home was located in the middle, where the fire was most intense, and I lost everything," resident Youthella Ivory said.

State Bureau of Investigation agents had sheets of paper with lists of house numbers. Homes not on the list were destroyed in the fire, they said.

"Basically, we lost everything -- pretty much all new furniture we put in (and) my car was burned up," resident Mike Caldwell said. "I have no identification, that's my problem. That's what we're trying to do right now. I can't get a driver's license because I have no identification."

David Rowe spent two hours sifting through the ashes.

"It's tragic, heartbreaking," Rowd said. "Childhood memories, every memory you've ever had just burned to the ground. Words cannot describe it."

The American Red Cross is assisting 72 people in 29 families that were affected by the fire. Ironically, one of the units heavily damaged belongs to a Red Cross board member.

Nancy Raybon of the Red Cross said many of the residents are still in shock.

"(They're) staring straight ahead, concerned, not knowing what happened," Raybon said. "Put yourself in that position -- that you've lost your home and you can't see what it looks like, so you don't know."

Resident Andrea Marks said the confusion caused by the massive fire has been unnerving.

"Not knowing if your unit is one of the units that's been destroyed was frustrating and scary," Marks said. "We were hearing all kinds of stories. People were saying, 'This side of the road. That side of the road,' and you're trying to figure out where yours is at."

"It looks like I have some water damage, but mine thankfully didn't burn down," resident Lamara Williams-Hackett said.

Crossroads Fellowship Church is collecting clothing and household items for families who lost their homes or belongings in the townhouse fire. The drop-off location is at the church located at 2721 Millbrook Road in Raleigh, on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Monday from 9 a.m. to noon. There will also be a dinner for the displaced families on Monday night.

"Largest fire I've ever seen"

About 150 firefighters battled the fire for more than an hour, using 31 pieces of equipment and hundreds of gallons of water per minute to douse the flames.

The flames jumped 40 yards into the sky and created a smoke plume that stretched for about 200 yards, authorities said.

"What I saw on fire was the probably the largest fire I've ever seen, and then I eventually realized that was only half of what was burning, which made it that much more spectacular," said Capt. Keith Wilder of the Raleigh Fire Department.

"Having been a firefighter for 12 years, this was absolutely the largest collection of fire apparatus I had ever seen," Lt. Brandon Gayle said.

The flames were fanned by winds that reached 30 to 40 mph, which authorities said made the fire difficult to control, because embers were blown over fire walls separating the units.

"This is the largest fire I've seen with the Raleigh Fire Department," Stanford said. "It was jumping all over the place."