How did it happen? Fire destroys huge building under construction in downtown Raleigh

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Investigators continue to seek answers, while an outpouring of support is seen for first responders.

Raleigh's fire chief said Friday that the cause of a massive fire that destroyed a large downtown apartment complex under construction is unknown.

"We're just starting our investigation," Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath explained.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been called in to help with the investigation into the largest fire the city has seen since the 1920s. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations is also helping both the Raleigh Police Department and the Raleigh Fire Department determine what caused that enormous fire.


"Investigating a fire of this magnitude requires a number of specialized resources to help determine the origin and cause," said Charlotte Field Division's Special Agent in Charge C.J. Hyman. "ATF will work in partnership with state and local fire and law enforcement agencies to assist the city of Raleigh in any way we can."

The ATF estimates the total loss of the multi-level building is more than $12 million.

The 5-alarm fire was first reported around 10 p.m. Thursday night at the Metropolitan apartment complex construction site located at 314 W. Jones Street and was battled by more than 100 firefighters. The site was once the location of the Raleigh Trailways bus station.

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Firefighters battle the blaze

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Video courtesy John Pfefferle

The wooden building burned so quickly that there was little firefighters could do but try to keep it from spreading to neighboring buildings.

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McGrath said several buildings close to the fire were seriously damaged by the radiant heat. Those buildings were being evaluated Friday for safety to determine if residents living there can return home. The City of Raleigh has set up a call center for affected residents to call with questions at: (919) 996-2999.

Don Sutton Insurance Services at Dawson and Jones Streets was closed Friday as they tried to pick up the pieces. The building suffered smoke damage along with some damage to its inside.

Clouds Brewing had to be evacuated when the fire happened. General Manager Andy Tetterton said he was shocked when he came in the business this morning that there was not more damage.

"You could smell the smoke this morning, but once we opened it up it aired the building out," Tetterton said. "I think we got really lucky for a fire of that magnitude to be that close to our business and not get anything at all."

The brewing company was closed for most of the day, but finally got the clearance to open about 4 p.m.

The Edenton Street United Methodist Church slate roof tiles were damaged by embers from the fire. Its youth center across the street got hit pretty hard.

A representative with the church said the roof was on fire and firefighters were able to contain it to the roof, but the water caused significant damage as it came through the ceiling. There is water damage throughout the building and restoration crews are already hard at work trying to get it all repaired. There is also very heavy smoke damage throughout the building.

McGrath said all wooden buildings under construction are especially vulnerable to fires.

"Any stick-built building will be vulnerable until sprinkler systems are put in," he explained. "That's why they're not issued a certificate of occupancy until all those issues are resolved."

McGrath said workers were just beginning to put in sheetrock and wrap the building when the fire broke out. Firewalls and sprinklers had not been put in yet.

"At the point of construction, you cannot protect a building like that," he continued.

McGrath said buildings under construction are inspected. This one had been inspected 50 times, the most recent inspection was on Monday and it passed all code requirements.

The companies doing the construction - Banner Real Estate Group and Clancy & Theys Construction Company - issued a joint statement Friday.

"We thank the heroic firefighters and all first responders who risked their lives to contain this fire and that no loss of life occurred. While the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, we are working closely with authorities to conduct a thorough investigation and review of the incident.

To our neighbors and to the surrounding community, we are saddened by this unfortunate situation and ask for your patience as the investigation continues and as we begin the process of site clean up."

Falling glass punctured a firefighter's chest during the fire and five people were treated for smoke inhalation, but McGrath said there were no life-threatening injuries.

Despite the size of the fire and the minor injuries, McGrath said he was pleased with how it was handled.

"This is a very good outcome. The only better outcome would be if the fire didn't occur," he offered.

That sentiment was echoed by Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

"I want to thank Raleigh's first responders for their heroic efforts in protecting the public during last night's destructive fire. I am grateful that no serious injuries have been reported as this could have been a significantly more tragic event," she said.

Raleigh Fire Department Division Chief John Fanning said that glass from the neighboring buildings is everywhere and glass is still falling from the aftermath.

One injury was reported during the fire when falling glass punctured a firefighter's chest. Fanning said the injury was non-life threatening.

"This is the biggest fire that I have ever seen in such a condensed area," Fanning said in his 24 years of experience.


Eyewitnesses said it appeared the fire ignited on the second floor. Investigators said as soon as it's safe to go into the rubble, they'll begin trying to answer the question of how it happened.

No one was living in the building, but there are numerous buildings nearby, including other residential apartment units.

Fanning said Friday morning that there was damage to five neighboring buildings and around 10 surrounding buildings had suffered fire exposure from the massive blaze.

The American Red Cross is assisting families who were temporarily displaced from neighboring apartment complexes as a result of the recent downtown fire. Displaced residents in need of assistance can call the Red Cross Triangle Chapter at (919) 231-1602. Red Cross caseworkers are available to help downtown at First Baptist Church located at 99 N. Salisbury St. in Raleigh.

A crane used at the construction site collapsed minutes after firefighters arrived.

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The morning after the downtown Raleigh fire from Chopper 11.

The fire was brought under control by 1 a.m., but crews are still spraying the burnt structure with water to extinguish any hot spots.

"Continue to wet it so that we don't have anything rekindle," Fanning said. "Usually a rekindle is worse than the original start."

The fire scene is also causing traffic headaches in downtown Raleigh.


Duke Energy's outage map showed around 250 customers were without power Friday morning after the fire damaged some equipment.

An official with Duke Energy told ABC11 those affected will be without power for days.

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