"I was awoken at 3 o'clock by police banging on the door," said resident James Crutchfield.
Other residents were awakened by the smell of smoke.
“I woke up smelling smoke. I looked out the window and saw it kind of bright out the window, so I walked outside and saw it was on fire,” said resident Amber Carpenter.
She said she thought to herself, "Get what i need and get out."
The size of the fire shocked residents who didn’t have time to think.
I was just ready to get out. That’s what I was thinking - just get what I need and get out, get my dog,” said Carpenter.
Kenny Coates said he was thinking the same thing as the fire surrounded his apartment.
Coates told Eyewitness News he was on the phone with 911 operator. "[I] told him my apartment was on fire, and I looked out the door and it had completely engulfed the deck. And I said, 'I got to go. I got to go, and I just grabbed as much as I could into a bag.'"
He fought smoke and heat as he fled the building.
"As i walked past the living room, the sliding glass exploded and blew in, and then the smoke and the fire blew in on top of me," Coates explained.
Once out of the building, Coates said he began banging on doors while the flames moved into the attic and quickly spread to other apartments.
Two apartments are totally destroyed and a total of 12 units are uninhabitable. Coates lost everything.
"The third floor, from what it looks like, is completely collapsed in on top of our living room and my bedroom," Coats said as he stood outside the damaged apartment.
Firefighters say the blaze started from a cigarette thrown on Coates' second floor deck. But Coates can't believe it.
"I know we properly discarded them in the ashtrays," said Coates.
No one was injured in the fire.
Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath says the apartment buildings did not have a sprinkler system.
Fifteen adults and four children lost their homes. The American Red Cross is helping all of the residents find new homes.