As massive DeKalb apartment fire raged, fire hydrants wouldn’t work

The fires — two of them — tore through the apartments in the dark early Friday. One man awoke to smoke in his bedroom, then found flames in the living room and decided to jump from the balcony. Others did the same. One woman worried the fall would be worse than the fire, only to be encouraged by a 14-year-old boy on the ground.

“Come on, baby,” Antonio Senior told the woman. “Just jump. I got you.”

He caught her moments before the building off U.S. 78 in DeKalb County collapsed.

As the harrowing details emerge about the mysterious blaze, one fact about the situation is raising questions: when DeKalb County firefighters arrived to 13Ten apartments, they couldn’t find a fire hydrant with enough pressure and had to locate another water source.

“Because the apartment complex’s private fire hydrants appeared to have low pressure, DeKalb County Fire Rescue hooked supply-line hoses to the county’s water main and hydrant system on Juliette Road,” county spokesman Andrew Cauthen said in an email. “DeKalb County Fire Rescue is examining the complex’s private hydrant system and records to ensure the system has been properly maintained and serviced.”

The case highlights an old issue. Fire hydrants in Georgia are owned either by the local governments or by private companies, and it’s the owners’ responsibility to keep them maintained. A message left for the manager of the apartment complex wasn’t immediately returned Friday.

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Andy Lovejoy, president of Marietta-based Civil Engineering Consultants, Inc., which tests hydrants for governments and businesses, said problems tend to arise when hydrants aren’t tested or used for a while. He said experts recommend testing at least every year.

“They don’t get exercise,” he said. “Think about being in bed all day and you get up and don’t move very well.”

In 2015, the DeKalb officials embarked on a project to color-code all of the government-owned hydrants so firefighters could simply look at them to determine the water pressure. The idea was to save valuable time for firefighters in intense moments.

"Obviously, fire hydrants are our lifelines," fire chief Darnell Fullum was quoted saying at the time in The Champion newspaper.

Two fast-moving fires ripped through apartments and condos early Friday in DeKalb County,.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

icon to expand image

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

The challenges can be greater with private hydrants. In addition to inactivity and lax maintenance, Lovejoy said problems occur when the water system doesn’t have enough capacity. Hydrants at a high elevation or with persistent leaks can also create problems, he said. It isn’t yet clear what caused the issues Friday.

Whatever the cause, the situation led firefighters to search for water during a wild, fast-moving blaze.

It took more than 30 firefighters to put it out, Capt. Eric Jackson told Channel 2 Action News.

At least two people were hurt and multiple people were displaced in the fire, which sent the second and third floors crashing onto the first. The Red Cross of Georgia is helping affected residents with lodging, food and clothing.

Christopher Jones was woken up to booming and crackling.

When he opened the bedroom door, smoke came pouring into his room, and he decided to jump from the second floor.

“It hurt my left ankle, but I’m alive,” Jones said.

Moments later, Jones saw the woman plunge from her balcony into the boy’s arms. He was amazed Antonio pulled it off.

Antonio seemed amazed, too. After all, the 14-year-old boy who turns 15 next week, managed to help in a time when even the fire hydrants didn’t.

“First thing out of my mind is save these people. Right now,” he said, recalling the moment when the woman fell to him. “She was scared. She was shaking and said, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’”

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