VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The Virginia Beach Fire Marshal has confirmed cigarette butts started a massive fire at a two-story apartment complex Tuesday afternoon.
Battalion Chief Amy Valdez said the scene was in the 3100 block of Hunter’s Chase Drive, at the Legends at the Beach apartment complex. Emergency dispatchers got the first 911 calls around 4 p.m.
Valdez said the fire started on the front side of the building, along South Lynnhaven Road. Battalion Chief Tracy Freeman later added, 16 apartment units were affected and 23 people were displaced.
The fire marshal told 10 On Your Side cigarette butts on the first-floor porch started the fire. The flames spread from the wall of the porch to the roof. That’s where Regan Knutson tried to stop it.
“I brought my fire extinguisher, and it would extinguish it, but then it would come right back,” she said. “It was staying right there and then it started climbing up the building.”
Wednesday, Knutson looked up at her second-floor apartment as fire investigators salvaged what was left of her life. She said, for a few minutes, she thought it was under control.
“Once it hit this roof here, that was just kinda when I was just consoling my kids, at that point,” she said. “Pretty much figured our cats and everything were pretty much gone.”
Within 10 minutes, she saw the fire shoot through the entire roof of the building.
“It spread because it got into the chaise of the attic very fast,” Va. beach Fire Marshal Terrence Tassone said. “The attic is a common attic. It doesnt have any firewalls through it. So, once it got up in that attic, it had free rein, it just spread from one end to another very fast.”
Virginia Beach’s building inspections division said the apartment building was up to code. But in Virginia, those codes don’t force an extra layer of protection.
“I think firewalls are a good thing. It protects the building,” Tassone said. “A true firewall goes through the roof, and there’s not holes in it, through the firewall itself. So, for me, I’d like to see firewalls and sprinkler systems through all our buildings, but the codes aren’t like that in Virginia.”
The investigation wrapped up, but for Knutson and her family, they continue to hold out hope to find their cats. “We found one this morning. The other one is still missing,” she said with a sigh.
Darrell Bias is one of the 23 residents currently without a home, due to the fire. It’s not yet clear if all 16 units were total losses or if any property could be salvaged.
“We got renters insurance,” Bias said. “As long as everybody is safe, that’s the only thing that matters.”
The American Red Cross is helping three adults who were displaced because of the fire.
“We are providing the families with a safe place to stay and assisting them with their immediate needs,” said Red Cross Executive Director Lorri Powers. “We will continue to work with the families over the coming days to guide them as they continue the recovery process.”
Reynolds Landscaping had several employees working at the complex when the fire started. Angelo Byrd said the roof of the building was consumed by flames in, what seemed like, a matter of seconds.
“I felt the instant heat wave on me, so it was like fight or flight,” Byrd said. “I just went ahead and flew to the office and tried to tell someone to call 911.”
There are no reports of injuries to residents, firefighters or pets.
Valdez said 18 VBFD trucks were at the scene. Crews had to shut down South Lynnhaven Road at Silina Drive so ladder trucks could use the fire hydrants there.
She said, because of the humidity and the heat, Virginia Beach EMS set up a rehab area for firefighters. They battled the flames on a rotating basis, while other firefighters recouped in the rehab area.
Freeman said a local Chic Fil-A franchise showed up with free food for displaced residents, firefighters and EMS personnel.