Raleigh, N.C. Fire destroyed 27 homes and damaged another 11 on Thursday in a North Raleigh subdivision with ferocious, wind-driven speed that forced people to leave their possessions and run for their lives.
"I'm blessed," said Juanita Williams, 18, whose family members lost their car, clothes and home. "I was asleep, and my mom woke me up. If she hadn't been there, I wouldn't be alive."
Nobody died, but the American Red Cross said at least 26 families were homeless or displaced. Assistant Fire Chief Tommie Styons said Thursday that the cause remained "a $50 question."
The air in Pine Knoll Townes stank from burned siding, cars were scorched and smoke hung like an acrid fog.
The fire, one of the biggest in Raleigh's history, came on top of two others in the Triangle in which five people died. An early-morning house fire in Durham killed an adult brother and sister. As Pine Knoll burned, an apartment exploded near the WakeMed Raleigh campus. A man, woman and child died.
Just before 3 p.m., Oneonta Avenue was quiet enough to nap, eat or talk on the phone.
Then neighborhood residents and workers say they heard a popping sound.
"When I came outside, I saw fire everywhere," said Cedrick White, 28, who was restacking a bookshelf in his house. "We could hear these loud popping sounds. I just kept praying, 'Oh God, oh God, oh God."'
Soon people were scrambling throughout the half-built neighborhood of townhomes. Workers jumped in trucks and drove away. Residents grabbed pets and ran.
Firefighters said they first heard about the fire at 3:02 p.m. It wasn't until about an hour-and-a-half later that they had it under control.
They were still working Thursday night to put out remaining hot spots.
"We'll be here all night, I'm sure," Styons said.
Investigators said they planned to work continuously to figure out what sparked the fire.
"In this wind," Styons said, "it could have started anywhere and just climbed."
As the fire was starting, Andrew Lassiter and two co-workers were returning from lunch. Lassiter, who works in the subdivision as a manual laborer, said he saw pipes burning in a yard.
"I was scared," Lassiter said. "Even though half of the houses aren't ready, a lot of people are living in those places."