The whole 700 section of the Weatherly Walk apartments went up in flames on Thursday.
Thanks to the efforts of three Weatherly Walk employees, everyone trapped inside by the fire was able to escape. No human deaths or injuries occurred, but some pets were killed and the damage to the apartment complex was extensive.
Community Manager Amanda Laudicinia said she was in the complex office when she received a call that the 700 building was on fire. She rushed over along with two maintenance workers, Chuck Faison and Mike Gutheridge, to find a fire that had already blazed out of control, trapping several residents inside.
Laudicinia said the three began "busting out windows" to free trapped residents.
Faison said the initial reaction was to grab fire extinguishers, but upon seeing the size of the fire they knew fire extinguishers would not be very useful.
"The kids play with this little lacrosse thing made out of wood. So, I grabbed that," Faison said.
He used the lacrosse stick to break open ground floor windows when he heard the screams of Kathleen Rojas. Faison found her hanging out of a second story window on the backside of the apartment, clutching her 4-year-old daughter Brianna.
"She was panicking and didn’t know what to do so I told her just throw the baby, throw the baby, I'll catch the baby," Faison said.
Because the ground slopes downward toward the back of the building, the fall from the second story window is more like a three story fall, and Laudicinia said she had to urge Rojas to drop Brianna.
"She was a little resistant but I told her 'he will catch her.' So she let the baby go and he caught her. Then she came out after and he caught her too," Laudicinia said.
Both Laudicinia and Faison said they were simply focused on getting everyone out and were never panicked or concerned with their own safety.
"You always think, ‘what if,’ but when it happens, to be honest with you, your mind goes completely blank. You just do what you think you need to do at that time," Faison said.
Unfortunately, he was unable to save some of the pets, despite his best efforts.
"I saw the dog in the window. He was on the third floor. So I’m throwing the thing up and busting the window, busting the window, but the dog never jumped out the window. And then the lady’s cats; the cats were just too scared, I couldn’t get them. They don’t know what to do. They just panic," Faison said.
Ground floor resident Virginia Miller tried desperately to corral her panicked cats, but eventually had to break out a window and flee as the smoke and fire became thicker. She didn't even realize the complex was on fire until she heard her neighbor screaming from above.
"I hear my neighbor scream 'I'm trapped, I'm trapped' but I just figured her kids had locked her in her bedroom," Miller said, "then I see her jump out of her window, and that's when I realized something bad was happening. I go out to my living room and it's just completely covered in smoke and I tried to open the front door and there's just a wall of flames, like the whole entrance is gone, and the trees outside were already on fire."
Miller said she tried to gather her cats but couldn't because "they were so freaked out." She eventually had to escape through the window as the flames began to come into her apartment.
"By the time I got out the top third floor was already completely engulfed and it was coming down to the bottom backside and front side of the apartment. Kind of everything was a blur after that," Miller said.
Her roommate, Jenna Greer, had been at lunch with her mother when she got the word that the apartment was on fire. The extent of the loss was overwhelming for her.
"I just feel numb, everything's gone. We had just moved in and I had taken everything from my mom's house-- keep sakes, stuffed animals, little things that I was planning on giving my children--now they're gone. It's just unreal," Greer said.