DeKalb County assistant fire chief Jeff Crump saw flames tearing through the Avondale Forest Apartments early Wednesday and immediately heard screams from residents.
He said his mind started racing.
“Are they burning? Are they on fire? Are these viable victims that we can save?”
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Crump got his answer when he saw three adults and two babies trapped on a third-floor balcony of the Pine Tree Circle complex near Memorial Drive.
“We went into what we call rescue mode at that time,” he said.
Firefighters kicked down doors and rescued a wheelchair-bound woman. Parents jumped from balconies and tossed children as young as 1-month-old to waiting firefighters below, according to Capt. Eric Jackson.
“We were catching babies like a football,” he said. “Literally.”
It’s unclear what caused the blaze, which was reported about 5:25 a.m. About 45 firefighters responded to the scene, Jackson said.
“Before we had even put a hose line on the fire, we had firefighters that were bringing adults out,” he said. “So that just shows you the bravery and the expeditiousness of our firefighters putting life safety first before they even put any water on the fire.”
Eight children and four adults were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, Jackson said. Most of the injuries were due to smoke inhalation.
The fire was contained about 7:40 a.m. MARTA buses were called to get displaced residents out of the cold, Jackson said. It was 28 degrees by the time the fire calmed.
Apartment management also opened an office to house residents temporarily, and Red Cross workers assessed emergency needs, officials said.
“At this time, Red Cross is providing as many as 79 people assistance with immediate emergency needs, such as food, clothing, lodging, replacement medications and other essentials,” American Red Cross of Georgia spokeswoman Divina Mims-Puckett said. “Red Cross caseworkers will continue to work with additional families in the days ahead to help them get back on their feet and connect them with additional recovery resources available to them in the community.”
Tierra Pyles, one of those displaced residents, said she was getting ready for work when she heard an intense noise.
“And I hear banging on all the doors in the building,” Pyles said.
She walked to the living room, where she noticed banging on her door. An older neighbor told her to get out of the building because there was a fire in the building next door, Pyles said.
She grabbed her sister and ran out of the building.
“It was crazy,” Pyles said. “I see people jumping off their balconies and (I hear) screams.
“And the screams were what really got me because it just sounded like people were getting hurt in the fire.”
Pyles said she watched her top-floor unit go up in flames, but the screams are what she won’t be able to forget.
“You can hear it,” she said. “You can literally feel the screams.”