After flames devoured 20 units of the Harbour Club Apartments in April, several residents want the city of Macon or the Macon Water Authority to pay for lost belongings.
Firefighters arrived seven minutes after the 12:09 a.m. 911 call April 2, but they didn’t have enough water coming out of hydrants on the private property.
“We were ready to do battle, but unfortunately we were met with a very low pressure water supply which put a crimp on our actions,” Macon-Bibb County Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said.
Attorney James E. Lee III has filed several legal claims for damages, with the city and Macon Water Authority, blaming the lack of pressure on improperly maintained water lines.
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“The fire department was on the scene promptly, in plenty of time to prevent the total destruction of the apartment building my client lived in,” one of the legal notices states. “Unfortunately, investigation reveals the water supply to the hydrants was insufficient to fight the fire. As a result, the fire department and the residents watched the building burn to the ground.”
MWA executive Tony Rojas declined to explain what caused the water pressure problem that night because of pending lawsuits concerning the massive blaze on Lake Tobesofkee.
“We don’t feel as though we did anything to be at fault,” Rojas said. “There were not adequate flows, but it would be inappropriate for me to discuss the details. There is adequate flow now.”
Riggins said it’s his understanding there was a problem with the water meter.
“I don’t think anything was deliberately done to it. It just failed,” Riggins said.
More than two months later, the blackened shell of building 205 still rises from the shore. Dozens of rusted stoves, dryers and other appliances lie in a heap of charred rubble behind a chain-link fence.
Demolition is pending conclusion of insurance company investigations and the flurry of recent legal filings.
The building once offered great views of the lake. That night, a fisherman had the best vantage point from the water to see the fire erupt on a second-floor balcony. “I’ve got three witnesses from three different viewpoints putting it at the same spot,” said Sgt. Ben Gleaton, a fire investigator for the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department. “Witnesses saw candles out there that night.”
In the time it took that fisherman to call 911, the flames had already made it up to the eaves on the third floor. The fire started on the outside of the building which allowed the fire to blaze quickly up and into the building.
“Because it was outside in the wide open, it had plenty of oxygen and probably a breeze coming off the lake,” Gleaton said.
The flames breached the soffit at the roof line and entered the attic at about the same time the sliding glass windows on the second floor shattered. That allowed the fire into building, he said.
A man living on the third floor noticed the flames from his back window and started alerting neighbors to get out.
“It was very fortunate no one was injured,” Riggins said. “We are grateful for the citizenry that got them out.”
By the time firefighters arrived, flames were shooting through the roof.
Across the lake, former firefighter Mike Burnett heard the air horns of the fire engines. Thinking a house was on fire in his neighborhood, he went outside to help.
Flames were shooting 30 feet higher than the building’s three stories, he said.
“It was giant,” Burnett said. “It was so bad because they couldn’t get the water down there.”
Burnett helped shuttle firefighters who were feverishly trying hydrants on Moseley Dixon Road and in the nearby Treetops development that has yet to begin construction.
Fire crews ran about 6,000 feet of hose, Burnett said.
“That’s three trucks worth of hose,” he said. “I felt bad for them because they were desperately waiting for water.”
Harbour Club property manager Teresa Crews said she arrived minutes after the fire and frantically started going over rent rolls to make sure everyone was accounted for.
“I just know everybody worked together to get everybody out, and not even a pet got hurt,” Crews said. “It was something I can’t describe. It was a terrible, terrible accident.”
She heard people talking about the low water pressure as they helplessly watched the flames consume more of the building. Crews said she was not aware of any specific problem that led to low water pressure.
“That’s something that can be speculated until the end of times, but as far as us being aware of anything that night, we were not,” she said. “Lots of people were sleeping, and a lot of people had to run out with just their pajamas on. That’s what hurts, but material things can be replaced.”
The apartment building will be rebuilt once the investigation is complete.
Of the people living in the 18 occupied units, several moved to other apartments at the complex while others moved in with relatives or relocated elsewhere, Crews said.
She has nothing but praise for the firefighters, deputies and charitable organizations that came to the residents’ aid.
“They all worked as hard as they could and did everything they could,” Crews said. “It gives me chills thinking about it, the way the community pitched in and offered places to stay.”
Donations of furniture, toiletries and clothing quickly piled up with enough left over to donate to the Macon Rescue Mission, she said.
The Macon Water Authority received several claim notices seeking damages, Rojas said.
One of those documents obtained by The Telegraph seeks at least $75,000 for loss of one person’s belongings, food and other expenses related to the fire.
The residents’ attorney could not be reached for comment in the past several days.
Andrew Blascovich, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert’s director of external affairs, said he could not discuss the case due to the pending litigation. He said he wasn’t sure how many claims have been filed against the city.
“The attorneys will handle it,” Blascovich said.
To contact staff writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.