CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A massive three-alarm fire overnight Monday at an east Charlotte apartment complex was intentionally set, the Charlotte Fire Department said.
Authorities are investigating arson, but have not said exactly what started the fire that forced more than 130 people and pets out of their homes.
The fire started around 1 a.m. at the Woodscape Apartments on Farm Pond Lane.
People were jumping off second and third-floor balconies to escape the fire.
"To try and come back together and start all over, it's a lot,” Kawon Taylor said. "I don't have words, like he's surprised I don't have words because no one wants to be here."
Fire investigators spent the day looking for a person of interest.
David Fontana, the owner of the Woodscape Apartments, said that once an arrest is made, the suspect should face attempted murder charges and not just arson charges.
"I'd like to see him charged with attempted murder and 130 counts of attempted murder,” Fontana said. "There are a lot of ways he could have made his point without putting lives in danger. He could have thrown a rock through a window. He didn't need to set a fire with some type of accelerant."
The flames were so intense that residents told Channel 9 at least two families dropped children from the second and third floors to escape the fire.
Naum Balle said he didn't think twice and tossed his two children from a window in their second-floor apartment to a neighbor below.
"He felt scared. He just thought about his kids so he just did what he had to do," a translator said.
Balle said he and his wife then jumped. The family of four all went to the hospital. They escaped with minor injuries.
"He says, ‘Thank God.’ It's a miracle he's alive and his family is also alive," the translator said.
Investigators said someone intentionally set the fire.
Elder Morales is the neighbor who caught Balle’s children. He said he threw a rock at the family's window to wake them up. He and dozens of other families are now homeless.
"Somebody (to) do that… That's not correct. There's a lot of people in there," Morales said.
Firefighters told Channel 9 that when they arrived they saw heavy flames and smoke coming from the apartments and quickly elevated the response to three alarms.
Channel 9 obtained cellphone video from residents during the chaotic scene. People told Eyewitness News they saw the flames and could feel the heat. In the video, people can be heard yelling for others to get out of the building.
"It was red hot. I felt the heat. I felt like I was walking through the fire. That's how I was feeling all over my body," Taylor said.
Taylor said he rushed to get his family to safety, including his 9-year-old son who didn't even have time to get his shoes.
"I heard the beating on the wall, then the commotion, people yelling outside,” Mike Murphy said. “I stuck out my head and saw the entire courtyard was all lit up.”
Yesnia Garcia, 16, started alerting neighbors about the massive fire.
"We're knocking on doors. We're throwing rocks on windows. People were still sleeping," Garcia said.
Garcia witnessed a 4-year-old child jump from a third-floor apartment.
"Her face was really crying, scared. She was holding her head like she really hurt it," Garcia said.
Paramedics said seven people were hospitalized, three with serious injuries and four with minor injuries.
The fire damaged approximately 40 units.
Chopper 9 Skyzoom flew over the gutted building hours after the fire was under control and could see extensive damage to dozens of units.
Parts of the roof were gone and the entire backside of the building was destroyed.
A team of firefighters and police officers was interviewing witnesses and looking at evidence to try and piece it all together.
Fire inspections and safety in apartment complex
Many tenants complained to Eyewitness News that fire safety systems did not go off during the fire.
"Smoke detectors. Did those go off?" reporter Jason Stoogenke asked.
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Period," renter Renee Mack said.
"Sprinklers go off?" Stoogenke asked.
"Nothing. Nothing. Nothing," Mack replied.
The Charlotte Fire Department said each unit had smoke detectors installed. Fire inspectors checked numerous units and all had properly working detectors. Some renters said they didn't hear the alarms.
"I didn't hear no fire alarms at all," Murphy said. "The alarm on my building, which is the back building, the alarms didn't go off on it."
Firefighters and renters also said there were sprinklers in the apartment building, and there's a disagreement over whether they worked.
Firefighters also said the apartment complex had fire extinguishers in each breezeway and all were working properly.
The apartment complex has to get a fire inspection every three years. The last one was in 2014 and the complex was due for its next inspection this year.
Helping fire victims
The American Red Cross opened a shelter for families displaced by the fire, which remained open overnight into Tuesday.
Red Cross officials told Channel 9 that 100 people registered for help and that 75 people spent the night in the shelter. They will begin case work on Tuesday.
The shelter is at Albemarle Road Middle School on Democracy Drive.
"It's uncomfortable, as well. A lot of families in here. It's sad just to see the look on their face. Not to be in their own apartments is sad," Taylor said.
The Red Cross is partnering with Crisis Assistance Ministry to help families in need. Clothing can be dropped off Tuesday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and Saturday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Spratt Street.
New Hope Baptist Church is also accepting donations for families affected by the fire. Clothing donations will be accepted Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The church also operates a food pantry and will collect shoes, baby supplies and water.
New Hope Baptist Church is located at 7821 Idlewild Road, Charlotte.
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