Chief: Huge apartment fire an ‘anomaly’; origin location affected alert systems

Many residents without a place to live after blaze destroys Reserve at LaVista Walk
Two people were arrested after residents were forced to evacuate the Reserve at LaVista Walk apartments after a fire broke out Friday.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Two people were arrested after residents were forced to evacuate the Reserve at LaVista Walk apartments after a fire broke out Friday.

Kayla Carter was attending a country music concert Friday night when she got a call from her roommate, who said their northeast Atlanta apartment complex was on fire.

At first, she didn’t think it was that serious, considering the fire alarms in the building routinely go off, she said, and force them into their closets to escape the noise.

“That whole situation is like the boy who cries wolf,” Carter said, “because you’ll never know if it’s real or not.”

This time it was real, engulfing the Reserve at LaVista Walk and leaving hundreds of residents without a place to live.

On Monday, Atlanta fire Chief Rod Smith described the blaze as “a complete anomaly” because of where it started, which likely impacted and delayed the alarm and sprinkler systems this time.

“If it starts in the roof line, then clearly the alarm system is not going to activate,” he told reporters during a news conference. “The sprinkler systems are heat-detected, so if it’s not burning up but burning down, it’s going to present a different challenge. So, the systems would not detect that until later into the alarm, which is very late if it starts in a roof, because it’s typically connected through the roof line.”

Police said the fire was sparked by two people setting off fireworks on the roof of the four-story building, causing mass evacuations as it spread through two large buildings in the 283-unit complex. Robert Stokes, 42, and Charnelle Gunn, 24, are accused of “intentionally” damaging the property and causing the fire, according to their arrest warrants. They face charges of criminal damage to property and reckless conduct.

The blaze required more than 80 firefighters, who encountered heavy smoke and fire on the roof of the complex. All of the residents were able to evacuate in time, but 17 people were treated for smoke inhalation and various minor injuries, fire officials said. Crews arrived within six minutes of the first call and the flames burned for much of the day Saturday.

Fire and city officials have not released details about any code violations or when the last inspection took place at the Reserve at LaVista Walk, but they said an investigation is ongoing. While the state insurance commissioner’s office is not actively involved in the investigation, they are in talks with their hazmat division due to the “potential use of consumer-grade fireworks” and “unique circumstances surrounding the incident,” spokesperson Ethan Stiles confirmed.

Just two years ago, Carter moved to Atlanta from Upstate New York to start a new life and pursue her dreams as a nurse. She finally had some time off Friday and was attending a Morgan Wallen concert when her roommate’s call put an abrupt halt to the joyful night of music and dancing at Truist Park.

After a video she saw proved the fire was real, Carter rushed home to her 1-year-old Cockapoo Bentley. She took a deep breath after finding him and her roommate safe outside.

Situated across Lavista Road at a Publix, they all watched as flames tore through the complex and her third-story apartment, where she had lived since early June.

“I didn’t know how to feel at that moment, I was coming from having the time of my life,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And then just go from that to my building on fire was just crazy.”

Kayla Carter, 20, and her dog escaped the fire, but she lost many precious belongings.

Credit: Kayla Carter

icon to expand image

Credit: Kayla Carter

The flames destroyed everything, including her school laptop from South College, class notes, clothes, and even more priceless items like pictures and the obituary of her brother who died about three years ago. Like the dozens of other residents, her dreams have been placed on pause as she works to pick up the pieces.

Carter is staying at a nearby hotel, and she recently went to the American Red Cross for support. Her car also had water damage.

“It definitely hurts,” she said. “And knowing that I cannot get those things back. I’m still kind of numb to the situation. I feel like as the days go on it starts to sink in more ... I have nothing, like not even a sock to my name.”

The Red Cross said Tuesday it has helped more than 200 people impacted by the fire. Volunteers served up to 500 meals and snacks to those in need, the nonprofit said, and additional help can be obtained by calling 1-800-733-2767.

“The Red Cross will continue to work with families to help them through their next steps, provide additional recovery resources, and help them acclimate to their new normal,” the organization said in a news release.

A fire truck is seen at the Reserve at LaVista Walk apartments following a massive blaze.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Parts of Lavista and Cheshire Bridge roads remained closed to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic Tuesday, officials said, and access to the buildings and parking garage at the complex was shut down due to the possibility of structure collapse.

Smith said the fire department is taking a three-pronged approach to the investigation: revisiting what was authorized by the city’s Office of Buildings; looking into code enforcement and the fire marshal’s office’s records; and investigating the cause.

“All of these must be revisited during the after actions of all events of this nature,” he told the AJC.

A fire department spokesperson said Tuesday that “audio and inspection reports must undergo a review process to ensure the released information has no bearing on the criminal investigation,” but added that they could be released soon. Smith said their code enforcement team is also checking what they can do to modify the code “to see where we can go in the future with these types of constructions.”

Online records didn’t appear to show any permit or code violations for the 1155 Lavista Road address associated with the complex. According to Stiles with the state insurance commissioner’s office, the maintenance of records, inspection reports and any complaints for the Reserve at LaVista Walk lies within the city’s jurisdiction.

Management at the complex did not respond to requests for comment.

Amid the investigation, destruction and loss, many residents like Carter shared the same sentiment: It doesn’t feel real.

“I’m just trying to keep positive during the situation,” she said. “It’s been hard. It’s been very hard.”

— Staff writer Jozsef Papp contributed to this article.