DURHAM – Fire gutted an apartment building at the Royal Oaks complex Monday, destroying or damaging at least 18 apartments and leaving 35 to 40 people homeless, according to the Triangle Red Cross.
“We’re still counting,” Red Cross spokeswoman Lu Esposito said late Monday afternoon. The Red Cross was arranging overnight shelter and working with Royal Oaks on long-term housing, she said.
Durham Fire Chief Dan Curia said he had had no reports of injuries.
The fire, reported around 12:30 p.m., was “a pretty significant fire already” by the time firefighters arrived, Curia said. It burned rapidly, sending a tall column of gray smoke up between Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard and University Drive.
“My apartment is gone,” resident Paula Maybrey said.
Neighbor children knocking on her door alerted her to the fire, Maybrey said. At first she thought she could help put it out with an extinguisher but smoke in the hallway was so black she could not see anything. She had to crawl out of the building on hands and knees below the smoke, she said.
“(The lower) half of the hallway had clear air, thank God,” she said.
After getting outside, she went into a section of her building the fire had not reached to alert other neighbors.
“I’m hoping I’ve just got smoke and water damage,” said Greg Berry, one of the neighbors Maybrey warned. Berry said he had heard a fire alarm go off, but thought little of it because he had heard false alarms before.
Real fires, though, have a history at the apartments: Monday’s fire was the seventh at the Royal Oaks since 2004.
“We’re familiar with the complex,” Curia said.
The fire appeared to have started on the north side of the building at 3525 Mayfair St., getting into the roof and spreading over or around a firewall into south-side apartments.
Curia did not yet know the fire’s cause and said the investigation would start once the building was stable.
Resident Herivelda Martinez said she thinks the fire started in a bedroom in her apartment. She said she smelled smoke and found flames in the bedroom, but had no idea what caused the fire to break out.
“Nobody smokes, we don’t have irons or anything,” said Martinez’s daughter, Felipa Santamaria, 15. Martinez said she had lived in the apartment for about a year and a half, with her husband, Modesto Santamaria, and their five children, ages 4 to 15.
The family, along with other residents and neighbors, stood about 100 yards away Monday afternoon, many taking pictures with smart phones from behind police tape.
By 3 p.m. the fire appeared to be under control, though the potential for the roof or floors to collapse still made it unsafe for firefighters to go inside.
The Fire Department responded with seven pumper engines, three ladder trucks, two squad cars and 50 firefighters, Curia said.