A roaring fire ripped through a Fairfax County condominium complex early yesterday, killing three people and seriously injuring a man who leapt from the third floor.
The three-alarm blaze broke out about 5 a.m. in the Victoria Crossings at Manchester Lakes complex in the Alexandria section of the county. It nearly spread beyond the four affected condominium buildings before more than 100 firefighters contained it about 6:30 a.m. and extinguished it several hours later, fire officials said.
Four buildings were involved in the blaze; two were left largely in ruins.
Intense heat and flames at first kept rescuers from fully searching the buildings, but they had discovered three bodies by yesterday afternoon, said Lt. Mark D. Stone, a county fire department spokesman. Authorities were not releasing the victims' names last night until relatives could be notified.
Two residents were briefly treated at the scene for smoke inhalation. No firefighters were injured.
Investigators had yet to pinpoint where or how the fire started, but there was no indication it was arson, Stone said.
Jennifer Williams, 28, of Fairfax came upon the blaze before firefighters arrived. As she drove a friend home, Williams smelled smoke, pulled into the parking lot and saw one of the buildings engulfed in flames.
"It was billowing flames and lots of smoke," she said. "The flames were coming from the patio on the first floor and had worked their way up. It was just spreading so fast. It went up and to the next building and then went over the top."
Her friend Rudy Naranjo, who lives in the building that was in flames, frantically knocked on as many of his neighbors' doors as he could.
"I was screaming at the top of my lungs: 'Fire! Fire! Everyone get out!' " said Naranjo, 26, who suffered smoke inhalation and was given oxygen at the scene.
"People started coming out with confused looks on their faces wondering what was going on," he said, adding that one woman told him she found time to brush her teeth.
A neighbor living above Naranjo said he heard Naranjo screaming and "at first I thought it was a dream, but I think my subconscious was telling me it was a fire."
The man woke up his girlfriend and was able to grab his guitars and cat and wrap his pet prairie dog in a towel before escaping the flames. "We're very lucky," said the man, who would not give his name. "It looked like the whole building was going to go."
As residents fled, witnesses said a man described as being in his mid- to late-thirties jumped from the third floor, screaming as he landed on the grass. He had burns on his arms and apparently broke his leg in the fall, Williams said. Fire officials said the man was taken by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center with serious injuries. His condition and identity were not available last night.
"This really makes you thankful for what you have," Williams said outside a local community center where the Red Cross was providing breakfast and lunch for residents and officials were giving regular briefings on the fire.
The Red Cross planned to open a shelter last night at a Baptist church, said Cameron Ballantyne, a Red Cross spokesman. At least 48 households were displaced by the fire, officials said, but it was unclear how many people would need to stay at the shelter.
As acrid smoke hung in the air, the parking lot of Victoria Crossings still buzzed with firefighters and emergency vehicles at 11:45 a.m. yesterday. Two of the light-gray, three-story condominium buildings, each containing 12 units, were mostly charred ruins. Four firefighters gingerly climbed a ladder extending from a firetruck to the top floor of one of the buildings.
Fire officials said those two buildings will be closed indefinitely. Residents were allowed briefly back into the two adjoining buildings, which were extensively damaged, to collect belongings. The residents were accompanied by firefighters.
Stone said the fire's rapid spread was accelerated by the buildings' wood frame construction, which burns easily. "There was no fire-resistant material, like concrete," he said.
The complex also has no fire sprinklers. Under state law, all multi-dwelling residential units now must have sprinklers, but Stone said investigators were virtually certain that Victoria Crossings was built before that law took effect. Residents said the complex is about 15 years old.
Fearing the potential for an even more serious conflagration, firefighters focused as much on the surrounding buildings as they did on the four that sustained the heaviest damage. After the 911 call came in about 5:15 a.m., Stone said, firefighters put crews on the roofs of nearby buildings, where they punched holes for ventilation and stood ready with hoses.
"We stopped it," he said. "It definitely would have spread to additional units."
Firefighters from the Fairfax, Alexandria and Fort Belvoir departments responded to the blaze.