No one was injured, although some pets died, Edwards said. Firefighters rescued four dogs and at least one cat. Bayou Rescue has provided emergency pet supplies, Red Cross emergency services director Beth Walden said.
The Red Cross is helping 15 residents with clothing, food and temporary shelter, but they will need permanent housing and furniture, Walden said.
"We're trying to return them to a sense of normalcy" as quickly as possible, she said.
Eric Plow, president of the University Gardens Homeowners Association, said some residents are staying with friends and family. A couple have moved into vacant units at the complex, and Estes Park Apartments in Carrboro and University Inn have also offered to help, he said. It could be at least four to six months before the apartments are habitable again, he said.
The complex is within walking distance of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and is popular with students.
"All our tenants are just wonderful people," Plow said. "This is just awful."
Crews from five Chapel Hill stations responded to a 911 call at the quiet condominiums on Pritchard Avenue around 10 a.m. They found the attic on the southern end of Building A "heavily involved in fire and smoke," Edwards said. Deputy Fire Marshal John Parker arrived first and ran to each unit, pounding and kicking in doors, she said.
Orange County EMS and Chapel Hill police also responded.
The fire spread down the building as firefighters mounted a ladder truck high above to suppress the flames. Firefighters on the building's third floor used axes and other tools to rip out burning ceiling material and window frames.
Neighbors huddled in blankets on the doorstep of a nearby building. A couple of bags of clothes and two pet carriers sat near one couple too distraught to talk about what happened. The woman said they lost their cat before bursting into tears. A firefighter found the cat later while searching the building and returned it to the woman, Walden said.
UNC-CH graduate student Rachel Wasserman said she left everything behind when someone pounded on her door and she smelled smoke. She saw a window air-conditioning unit fall out of a burning window on the third floor as she fled the building, she said.
"I wasn't even dressed yet, because I didn't have anywhere to be today," she said.
It took firefighters about an hour to get the blaze under control, but they remained on the scene until just after 2 p.m., Edwards said.
Fire officials said it's a good idea for everyone to test smoke alarms monthly, develop a home escape plan and have working fire extinguishers.
Written by The News and Observer