Scores of families gathered at the complex on Main Street, looking on in disbelief as firefighters spent the better part of the afternoon dumping thousands of gallons of water over their building’s charred remains.
“I was on the fourth floor, so everything’s probably gone by now,” Stafford said, wearing a mask as he looked on with about a dozen others in the breezeway of an adjacent building. “It’s the first time this has happened to me and I can’t even describe it. I just can’t describe it.”
Investigators said the fire reached a common attic before spreading throughout the building, causing a large portion of the roof to collapse.
By then, crews had gone door-to-door to inform residents their building was on fire and get everyone outside safely.
No residents were injured in the blaze, but one firefighter was taken to the hospital about 3:30 p.m. after a wall collapsed near the parking deck. The firefighter injured his knee but is expected to recover.
By the time the flames were finally extinguished, the building was a “a complete and total loss,” fire officials said at the scene. Any units that weren’t destroyed by fire or thick smoke were flooded by firefighters’ hoses. The water sprayed onto the building from their extended ladders got inside the walls and seeped all the way down into the first-floor leasing office, authorities said.
For 28-year-old Chris Bronkar, the fire was yet another setback in an already difficult year marred by the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn.
Bronkar, who works as a gate agent at Delta Air Lines, said he was making breakfast and preparing to leave when he heard people scream “fire,” followed by the sounds of neighbors running through the hallway.
He put his cat in a small carrier, threw some important paperwork in a backpack, grabbed his laptop and hurried outside.
Bronkar, who has lived in his apartment for two years, said there have been small fires before, but nothing like what he saw Wednesday.
“I wasn’t thinking anything of it at first,” he said. “I walked out just in case, went around the corner and noticed the AC units were burning up.”
With fewer passengers traveling by air, Bronkar said his shifts at the airport were reduced to just four days a week earlier this year. Still, he considered himself fortunate that he had a steady income and a place to live.
“The pandemic hadn’t really affected me as much as other people,” he said. “So many people have lost their jobs, but until this happened, it hadn’t really bothered me.”
Still, he remained positive, joking that he had been thinking about finding a new place to live anyway.
“There’s nothing else I can do,” he laughed. “It could have been a lot worse. Everyone was able to get out and nobody died. Hopefully everything works out.”
Those who lost their homes in the fire walked to nearby Passion City Church, where American Red Cross volunteers collected their personal information and began making temporary housing arrangements.
Church leaders handed out bottled water as they welcomed the displaced residents and their pets.
Chandler Saunders, who works as a graphic designer for the church, said he packed a cooler and rushed over to the apartment after seeing the massive fire on the news. He and other volunteers invited about 75 people back to the church so they wouldn’t have to stand in the heat.
“Some of these people don’t have family here or anywhere else to stay, so we’re just trying to help them in any way we can,” he said.
American Red Cross of Georgia spokeswoman Sherry Nicholson said volunteers assisted 101 families – 162 people total – who were displaced.
— Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.