Fire that ripped through Charlotte apartment complex ruled arson

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Investigators said they've determined a massive two-alarm fire that raged at a north Charlotte apartment complex early Thursday was arson.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Arson Task Force and the Charlotte Fire Investigation Task Force said they determined that the fire was intentionally set.

[PHOTOS: Flames engulf north Charlotte apartments]

Fire officials told Channel 9 a crew returning from a medical call actually spotted the flames just after 4:30 a.m. at the Hunters Pointe Apartments off Prospect Drive, near Interstate 85, in the Hidden Valley neighborhood.

When they arrived at the scene, fire crews reported heavy flames and smoke coming from one of the buildings, which was fully involved.

Officials told Channel 9 most of the damage was contained to the Leasing Office.

(WATCH BELOW: Raw footage from the scene as flames destroy apartments)

Channel 9 crews could see a building engulfed in flames as the fire raged. Pine trees near the building also caught fire.

Officials said there was one person in the building but they were able to make it out safely. No injuries were reported but dozens of families were impacted.

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The American Red Cross responded to help those affected by the blaze by helping to give food, water and blankets to everyone, from hurting families to exhausted first responders.

Officials said five people were displaced from their homes. The Red Cross said four apartments were damaged and another 21 were left without power.

Most of the damage was concentrated where the Leasing Office used to stand. It could have been much worse, but firefighters worked for more than an hour to stop the flames from spreading beyond the office and attached apartment.

“There was a police officer just as we pulled up, we get the drinks out and I can see him shivering as he directed traffic. He didn’t have a jacket on or anything like that. So I said, 'Do you want a hot drink?' He was so grateful," said Andrew Jackson of the Red Cross.

Daniella Greer told Eyewitness News she is one of those displaced by the fire.

“Cold, very very cold. You know, shocking, scary at first. It's just overwhelming, emotionally outside of that I'm OK really," said Greer.

Greer said she only escaped because a neighbor pounded on her door to wake her up.

Fifty minutes after the initial call, flames could still be seen licking the sides of the building but fire officials said the blaze was under control.

Temperatures were in the 30s Thursday morning and CATS buses were called to the scene to help those displaced by the fire stay warm.

Resident Sharon Campfield said she could see the glow of the fire coming through her blinds.

"I saw an orange glow at first," Campfield said. "I was gonna move the blinds, but it was so hot I couldn't so then I knew it was fire and I just ran to my bedroom and grabbed my coat and phone and I dialed 911 and somebody started ringing my doorbell and they were yelling, 'There's a fire get out.' It was all engulfed in flames."

Campfield said she ran out without her shoes and saw the massive fire just feet from her apartment.

One father told Channel 9 his 9-year-old daughter, Tahana, barely escaped from the fire with only slippers on her feet.

A woman who lives nearby told Channel 9 she woke up when she heard the sirens.

“It was chaos outside. The fire was so big that when we came outside, it wasn’t even cold,” said Brandi Black. “When I say it was huge flames, it was the biggest flames I’ve ever seen in person. They were basically catching the trees on fire, igniting the fire even worse. I just feel sorry for the residents. I hope for the best for everybody involved.”

(WATCH BELOW: Eyewitness describes massive apartment fire)

One woman who escaped the fire told Channel 9 she's lived at the apartment complex eight years but is going to move. She said she has been so traumatized by the fire she could never move back into an apartment there.

The property manager told Channel 9 she will work with families to make sure they don't have to worry about paying rent right now.

Channel 9 learned there are 385 units at the complex, which was built in 1972, and that the owners announced a $2 million improvement plan in 2017.

[ALSO READ: Man who started massive Charlotte apartment fire will spend time in prison before being deported]

Chopper 9 Skyzoom flew over the charred apartments and could see smoke still billowing from the buildings more than two hours after the fire started.

(WATCH BELOW: Chopper 9 Skyzoom flies over charred apartments)

Roads in the area were closed as firefighters worked to fight the flames.

Parents and students were huddled at the school bus stop, many frustrated and confused because they weren't sure if their bus had come or not. Some high school students told Channel 9 they decided to grab an Uber to school because they didn't want to be late to class.

Eventually, buses started to come around 7 a.m. but by then, traffic was a mess.

Channel 9 watched a car illegally drive past a school bus that had its stop arm out and lights flashing. Parents were walking their children across the street, while others shouted out to the drivers to stop.

“It’s crazy. It’s sad, and these kids got to walk all the way down here. You got toddlers and preschool. It’s crazy. It’s always something in these apartments,” mother Keke McSwain said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sent the following statement to Channel 9:

"Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is working with Charlotte Fire Department, law enforcement, emergency responders and relief agencies to assess impacts on families affected by this morning’s apartment fire. CMS is acting to meet the needs of affected students and their families and asks for the support of the community for our neighbors who need assistance. The district will update information as this situation develops."

Officials said the fire caused $200,000 in damage.

Channel 9 was there as an arson dog sniffed for accelerants. The dog appeared to return to the same spot several times.

After learning the fire was set, residents in the community said they were shocked.

"It's very hard to wrap my head around it," Germiyal Bennett said.

"That was dangerous and other families could've gotten hurt. I thank God nobody did get hurt, somebody could've gotten hurt," Tara White said.

Adrienne Cromwell said she grew up in the area and said the shock of the fire was difficult enough, but knowing someone did it on purpose has the entire neighborhood on edge.

"Somebody intentionally did it, that makes it different. Like, at first we thought it was some freak accident," Cromwell said. "It's like if you didn't know what happened, you knew by the end of the day. You shouldn't be going around burning people's stuff and now these families are displaced."

CMPD said it’s determined to find the person responsible for the fire, which could have been deadly.

“It can be a killer. Individuals were at home sleeping. Their sense of security was really ruined this morning by that fire,” Lt. Brad Koch said.

Investigators are asking anyone with information about this case to call Crime Stoppers at (704) 334-1600.

Check back with wsoctv.com for updates on this story.