By Linda Looney-Bond
Clarence Taylor lives in Building 8, at the Laurel Park Apartments on state Highway 85, in Riverdale. That's directly in front of what used to be Building 10, which was destroyed by fire Friday night.
"You can still smell the smoke, smell the odor in the air," Taylor said on Monday. "It was just tragic. I mean, nobody had a chance to really save anything," said Taylor, who has lived in the apartment complex for two years.
Around 10 p.m., Friday night, fire broke out at the apartments located at 5758 Highway 85, according to Battalion Chief Landry Merkison, a spokesperson for the Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services department.
Eight units were destroyed, and 20 residents displaced. No one was injured, according to Merkison. He said the fire started in a sofa that was sitting in a breezeway at the two-story building.
"We know it started in the sofa ... we just don't know how it started," he said.
Merkison said authorities are not sure why the sofa was in the breezeway, and said the cause of the fire is under investigation.
Flames from the sofa, he said, forced one resident to jump from a second-floor balcony. "There was a guy in the upstairs unit that had to go out the balcony because the sofa was apparently right outside his door. There were flames around his door, so he bailed off the balcony," said Merkison.
Clarence Taylor, the resident of Building 8, said, according to neighbors, the man who jumped from the balcony had found the sofa in a dumpster at the complex, and that the man's father had helped him bring it upstairs. "Evidently it was a good-looking sofa, so they brought it up here, and somebody ignited it. I don't know who, we don't know who. Mysteriously, a fire started in that sofa," he said.
"They're [residents] speculating that somebody who may have had a beef with somebody in the building set the sofa on fire, and the building went up [in flames]," said Taylor.
Battalion Chief Landry Merkison, however, said he could not confirm the speculation. "We're still in the investigation mode," said Merkison. He had said earlier that arson was not suspected at this stage of the investigation.
Merkison said an alert resident helped get everyone out of the building unharmed. "Basically, we had a resident that lived in the building across from this building [Building 10] that was returning home and noticed smoke coming from the breezeway. He noticed a sofa in the breezeway on fire. He immediately started banging on doors and getting some people out. Once our crews got there, we had visible flames through the roof."
Taylor praised the firefighters for their work. "It could have spread to other buildings, but due to their fast work, I think they saved those adjoining buildings," he said.
Taylor said by the time he arrived home Friday night, the fire was well underway, and he watched from his balcony directly in front of the burning building. "I was out to dinner. When I got home, it was fully engulfed, so I went upstairs, and I just sat and watched it in disbelief -- couldn't believe it was happening.
"You could feel the heat, I mean, you know, as the wind blew the cinders from the building, and, of course, the water from the hoses," he said.
The American Red Cross was assisting with relocating residents and helping to provide them with clothing and other necessities, according to Merkison.
"They escaped with literally their pajamas, their T-shirts on, no shoes," said Taylor, about some of those whose homes were destroyed. "Their valuables -- they had to leave them behind. That fire swept through there that fast."