A massive fire at a Whitehall apartment complex early Friday morning destroyed 20 apartments where about a dozen families called home.
The began about 3 a.m. and fire burned for hours as more than 100 firefighters worked to get the flames under control in the 5100 block of Longbranch Lane at the Villages at Eden Crossing. Neighbors were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night.
No injuries have been reported, but many people lost their apartments and their belongings.
Smoke billowed from the building and flames consumed brick and wood for about four hours.
People started calling 911 at 3 a.m., but the assistant fire chief for the Whitehall Division of Fire said the problems may have started the night before in what he described as an accident and an electrical fire.
In the unit where the fire is believed to have begun, Tarshaneba Banks and her family heard a pop from a wall outlet in the water bedroom Thursday evening. She said it wasn’t the first time there had been an issue with the outlets.
“I didn’t see no smoke, I didn’t smell nothing, so [I] continued my day, went to cooking and cleaning up my house, tending to my children,” Banks said.
Hours later, while her family slept, her teenage son came crawling out of his bedroom.
“He said, ‘The back room is on fire in the wall,’” Banks said.
Her family made it out, but not without difficulty.
Banks said she had to crawl to find her three adopted toddlers and her 10-year-old son was having trouble breathing.
Firefighters faced a tough job, too.
“We had light smoke from the outside, but as soon as we popped the door, fire crews encountered extreme heat and a lot of fire,” said Chris Menapace, assistant fire chief for the Whitehall Division of Fire.
A portion of the building where the fire started collapsed so more than 100 firefighters had to attack the three-alarm fire from outside.
That wasn’t easy, Menapace said because the roofs shed water instead of absorbing it.
Jeremy Moore-Diggs lives next door to the unit where the fire started.
He got out with his girlfriend, her son and their dog Rocky.
“I’m still speechless because we never experienced anything like this ever before,” Moore-Diggs said.
He and others warmed up on buses provided by COTA and Whitehall City Schools as he waited to get his car out to go stay with relatives.
“I know the majority of people lost personal belongings, so just be thankful to God that we’re all alive and just take it one day at a time,” Moore-Diggs said.
Some of the neighbors in the northern part of the L-shaped building were expected to be able to return to their units after evacuating. About 20 units, though, were destroyed, affecting 9 to 12 families and about 30 people total.
Menapace said if anyone ever sees a sparking outlet or something that could be dangerous, he would urge them to call the fire department.
“Our guys would rather roll out here with one firetruck and tell them, ‘Hey, it’s OK,’ than 39 firetrucks,” Menapace said.
He noted that cold weather caused problems for firefighters, from concern for the wellbeing of the victims to fears about slipping and falling as firefighters worked to control the fire.
He said it also caused trouble with the firefighters’ dexterity as they tried to adjust to the cold weather.
Initially, the Red Cross said it planned to set up a shelter, but later said the apartment complex planned to provide housing to the victims.