A smoldering cigarette butt caused a raging fire early Friday morning at an East Brainerd apartment complex that put about 75 people out of their homes, Chattanooga Fire Department officials said.
Firefighters received a call at 3:22 a.m. Friday about a fire at Carriage Parc apartments, 1400 Carriage Parc Drive, located just off East Brainerd Road. When firefighters arrived, they saw flames already shooting through the roofs of the structure, said Public Information Officer Bruce Garner.
No one was injured. There were 12 units destroyed by the fire and another 12 were damaged by water. Electrical power was shut off to 30 more units.
Joejuana Morton fled the apartment she lives in with her husband, Harlan, and the couple's 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. They ran out with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Morton heard no alarms sound. No one knocked on her door. She just happened to wake up and heard commotion outside.
"Smoke was starting to come in the apartment and as we got ready to go through the door. The fire was right next to us. It was the apartment right next to ours. All I could think was, 'Is it getting ready to collapse?'" she said.
The Mortons are fortunate. They have renter's insurance.
"I haven't been back to see it, but from what I'm hearing -- it's all gone," she said.
The apartment buildings were not equipped with sprinkler systems. However, if they are rebuilt, the units will have to include sprinklers, Garner said.
The woman who pulled the alarm where the fire originated on the second floor said she heard a loud noise from her porch that alerted her to the growing blaze. She tried to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher when the fire continued through the sliding glass door. She took her dog and left. She pulled the alarm and knocked on the door of neighbors, Garner said.
Fire officials believe a lit cigarette butt ignited a small fire in the flower pot where she normally put out her cigarettes. Flames spread to the wooden balcony and vinyl siding.
Several pets -- mostly cats -- were unaccounted for after the fire. A dollar estimate of damages was not available Friday afternoon.
Fifteen fire companies responded. As of 11 a.m., firefighters were still working on the structure.
A mass casualty bus was brought in initially to prevent people from sustaining frost bite.
"There's a lot of displaced people and it's extremely cold outside," Garner said.
The Red Cross is helping residents make arrangements to find a place to stay and the Salvation Army is assisting with food as well as finding furnishings. A shelter has been set up at East Brainerd Church of Christ, 7745 East Brainerd Road.
Greg Waite, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee, said case workers are ready to guide families through the process of getting back on their feet.
"For us, it's about the managing the chaos," he said.
Typically about 20 percent of victims use shelter services provided, he said.
The Mortons plan to stay with family. The apartment complex management has been in touch with families. It's possible the Mortons will find another three-bedroom unit at Carriage Parc.
"They're trying to accommodate everybody. We're going to see if they have room for us," she said.
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.