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28 people lose homes in fire at apartments

NORCROSS - Nearly 30 people were displaced in a Saturday afternoon apartment fire that destroyed a four-unit building in Norcross.

Lt. Thomas Rutledge, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Fire Department, said all four units were heavily damaged, and heat from the flames melted vinyl siding on one building next door.

"This is a pretty serious fire," Rutledge said. "We're lucky no one was hurt."

Firefighters were first called to the predominantly Hispanic Huntington Ridge apartment complex on Windsor Woods Lane in Norcross at 4:03 p.m., Rutledge said, and had the bulk of the fire out at 4:48 p.m., though there were still some hot spots.

A number of residents stood outside the two-story wood frame apartments late Saturday afternoon watching the firefighters, but many could not speak English or were unwilling to discuss the fire. Some neighbors said they smelled smoke but didn't realize anything was wrong until they saw the fire trucks outside.

Evelin Garcia, 15, said she and some friends were going door-to-door at the apartment complex to try to get people to come to their church, Mision Internacional la Vid Verdadera, when they saw smoke coming from the roof of the apartment building.

"It's something I never saw before," Evelin said. "I was really amazed. I'd never seen it before; I was really in shock."

Diana Flores, 14, said she saw some people crying and throwing clothes, papers and other items from the window, and went to help pick them up with 16-year-old Paulina Seja.

"It was so hot," Paulina said.

One woman was crying and left the apartment in a robe and with no shoes, 11-year-old Christopher Garcia said. Christopher said he tried to go to the apartment's management office, but no one was there, so they called 911.

"This guy helped me with people, helped me get them out of the fire, warn them it was burning," he said. "People were running out of their houses."

Rutledge said the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but the fire started in apartment A and extended to the attic.

Firefighters initially entered the apartments, Rutledge said, but were quickly pushed out by the intensity of the flames.

The apartment building, which is more than 30 years old, was not equipped with firewalls or a sprinkler system, which contributed to the quick spread of the fire, Rutledge said.

Families living in the building said everyone escaped unharmed, but hot spots have prohibited firefighters from searching the area more extensively. The Red Cross was called to assist the 22 adults and six children from the four units, and Rutledge said the building was a total loss.

No one at the apartment complex returned a phone call seeking additional comment, and a Huntington Ridge employee who was watching the fire and would only identify himself as Jose said he could not comment.

Initially, firefighters had low water pressure as they were trying to spray the adjacent building to cool the melting vinyl siding, Rutledge said.

That building has moderate exterior damage, but is still livable, he said.