The fire had already gutted the first floor of the home and forced firefighters to retreat when flames exploded through the roof Monday evening.
“Oh God, whatever you do, don’t turn around,” wailed resident Ananda Syapin, as she fell to her knees in the grass nearby and started weeping. “Oh God, I can feel the heat.”
Her boyfriend and roommate, Michael Russell, was leaning against a tree, his back to the fire. He didn’t turn around.
Inside the home were pictures of his family that dated back to the 1700s.
“It’s all I had of my family left,” he said.
The fire at 1911 W. Gardner Ave. killed three cats, several birds and fish. Although Syapin and Russell weren’t home when the fire began, two people were. Neither of those residents was hurt, although one ran back into the burning home, risking his life to save a kitten.
Fire crews were summoned to the two-story home at 4:40 p.m., Fire Chief Bobby Williams said. By the time they arrived, the fire had spread to the second floor, and there was little they could do, Williams said. The cause of the fire was unknown as of late Monday.
There were no smoke detectors, firefighters said, and the house was a total loss with damage estimated at $150,000. Five adults and one teenager lived in the home. The Red Cross is helping the occupants.
About 40 neighbors and passers-by watched as nine of the department’s 17 units, including 33 firefighters, battled the blaze, Williams said. By about 5:30 p.m., firefighters had retreated from the building’s blackened lower floor, and fought the fire from the outside, sending a stream of water onto the upper-story flames. With large gaps between the inner and outer walls running the height of the building, the fire was nearly impossible to attack until it burned through the roof, Williams said.
T.J. Gollihugh had been lying in bed in the home when he heard a popping and banging, like someone was trying to tear out the air conditioning unit, he said.
He asked fellow resident Pat Richard if anybody else was home.
She said no.
When the noise persisted, Gollihugh opened the bedroom door and saw flames covering the floor and fire climbing the walls, he said.
He called 911 and the residents each grabbed a dog and fled, he said. But more animals remained inside.
Defying orders from 911 operators, Gollihugh ran back inside and rescued a kitten. He dropped the animal in the front yard and tried to re-enter, but thick smoke forced him back, he said.
More than an hour after the fire started, Gollihugh said he didn’t know what had happened to the kitten.
Syapin said a hard loss was that of Pepperbear, an off-white, 2-foot-tall stuffed animal given to her daughter, now 13, at a Peppers Restaurant in California. Her daughter, Adrienne Nettles, picked out the stuffed animal when she was only a year and a half old during a family trip. The trip was the last time the girl saw her great-grandfather, who has since died, Syapin said.
“Her teddy bear is what sent her to the ground in tears,” she said.
Minutes after flames burst through her roof, a neighbor approached Syapin, asking if she needed anything.
“I need my daughter’s teddy bear back,” Syapin said. “It’s in the room that’s on fire.”
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