RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA - UPDATE, FRIDAY 5:45 P.M.: The biggest fire in downtown Raleigh since the 1920s was extinguished early Friday morning, but the flames destroyed an apartment building that was under construction and damaged nine nearby buildings, five severely.
The unfinished, five-story building on nearly 2 acres at West Jones and North Harrington streets, near the Glenwood South restaurant and bar district, ignited around 10 p.m. Five alarms for help to battle the blaze were sounded over the next two hours.
"The building is half built. It's all stick," a man who called 911 to report the fire told a dispatcher.
"This is going to be up, and it's going to be huge," the 911 caller said, adding that flames were already 20 feet in the air.
The apartment building, called the Metropolitan, was made primarily of wood, Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath said during a Friday morning news conference. The 274,000-square-foot building had been inspected 50 times, including most recently on Monday, he said, and it was up to code and had passed each inspection.
McGrath dismissed the idea that the building's wooden structure was dangerous.
"Any building that's being built is vulnerable at some point," he said. "Unfortunately, this building was at the stage when it was extremely vulnerable, before sprinkle systems got in, (before) fire resistant walls were put up."
Firefighters on Friday morning were still working to control hot spots, and McGrath said crews could be working until late Friday night to keep the flames from rekindling.
"It's layered, and it's burning underneath," McGrath said Friday afternoon of the pile of burned wood left by the fire. "We have to make sure all of the fire is out before we can declare the area is safe."
Investigators have not yet been able to get to the building to determine the cause of the fire, and there was no estimate on the cost of the damage done.
Raleigh police were on site all morning, trying to determine if the fire had been set, and teams from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Bureau of Investigation were also trying to determine the cause of the fire.
"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," building owner Banner Real Estate Group and general contractor Clancy & Theys Construction said in a statement. "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."
Largest fire in decades
Raleigh historians said the five-alarm fire was the largest in the city in 90 years based on the size of the response, according to McGrath. Officials said 130 firefighters from the city and around Wake County battled the fire through the night.
One firefighter was injured by falling glass, according to officials, but the firefighter's injury was not considered life-threatening.
"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," Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in a statement. "We were reminded of the dedication and skill of our first responders as witnessed when Raleigh firefighters worked tirelessly through the night to first contain and then extinguish the blaze. Raleigh police supported evacuation efforts and maintained a safe perimeter, and county partners supported the emergency response.
"I would also like to thank the community organizations and businesses that have opened their doors and offered food, shelter and support to first responders and all of our residents displaced by the fire," McFarlane said. "Please join me in keeping the first responders and impacted residents in your thoughts and prayers as our community recovers from this devastating fire."
Several major roads through downtown Raleigh were closed early Friday morning, and as many as 230 customers lost power in nearby buildings.
"I got out and I saw the fire, and I've just been looking at it," said Jeff Woodward, who was a bystander downtown. "It's incredible the amount of buildings that are burning over there.
"There's cars exploding up in the parking deck that are burning. I've never seen anything like this before."
Nearby buildings damaged
About 10 nearby buildings were damaged by the fire, including six floors of the nearby 204-unit Link apartments and 17 floors of the 44-condo Quorum Center, according to fire officials.
Developer Ted Reynolds, who built the Quorum Center more than a decade ago and lives on the top floor, said he noticed his shades were glowing when he turned out the lights late Thursday, and when he stepped out on his balcony to see what was happening, he saw flames shooting into the sky over his head.
"I didn't know what to think," Reynolds said, "but I didn't want to stop to talk about it. I wanted to get out of the building."
McGrath said Friday afternoon that his department was assessing the structural integrity of the buildings so that they could allow residents back inside over the weekend to retrieve some belongings. Because the fire alarm and sprinkler systems have been damaged, however, the buildings are uninhabitable for the foreseeable future, he said.
Construction on the Metropolitan began in 2016 and was scheduled to be finished by the end of this year. Plans called for 241 apartments, including studio, one- and two-bedroom units.
"I saw a huge explosion from a car up there, a lot of sparks falling down," said Ian Martin, who saw the fire as it was burning. "I even saw some ashes on the roads, like it's been raining ash."
The sight of the flames lapping at the night sky brought people to downtown. For Raleigh residents, the scene of familiar buildings burning was almost surreal.
"You see these places every single day," said Tim Mertes, who was also downtown. "To see them on fire is definitely something else."
PREVIOUS STORY: An apartment building under construction in downtown Raleigh was engulfed in flames Thursday night.
The five-story building at 400 West North Street caught fire just after 10 p.m. The building is adjacent to the Glenwood South restaurant and bar district, according to NBC-affiliate WRAL.
The fire had escalated to a five alarm blaze by 11 p.m.
Nearby buildings and residents were being evacuated and it appeared power was knocked out in several nearby buildings.
A shelter has been opened at the Church of the Good Shepherd at 125 Hillsborough Street for anybody who was evacuated as a result of the fire. Those who need information can contact Shannon O'Brien at 612-670-1082.
West North Street was closed as firefighters battled the blaze. Capital Boulevard was closed between Wade Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Glenwood Avenue was closed between Wade Avenue and West Morgan streets as a result of the fire.
The fire had spread to another high-rise building by about 10:30 p.m. and the flames were affecting the roofs of several nearby buildings. Firefighters were saying there was a possibility that people could be trapped inside.
"It's sad is what it is. I'm hoping that the whole block isn't on fire," said one resident near the fire.
Another resident said that he saw a parking deck catch fire and then heard about 10 to 15 explosions.
At least three buildings on McDowell Street were affected by the fire.
The building that caught fire is next door to the Link at Glenwood South apartment buildings. It was unclear if that building was affected.
Water was being thrown on many nearby buildings to prevent the fire from spreading further.
A WRAL tower camera captured the collapse of a nearby sky crane as the result of the fire.
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