WINCHESTER, Ky. – Keith Edwards woke up in the middle of the night and heard what sounded like gunshots. Looking out the window, he saw flames, 25-feet tall, starting to consume his apartment building.
The massive overnight fire at his central Kentucky apartment complex killed three, injured at least five and forced some residents to leap from second-story windows to escape the flames.
"There was a lot of screaming, a lot of crying. People were burned, they were injured and trapped up on the second floor," said Edwards, who escaped by climbing from the window of his first-floor apartment. "Smoke so thick you couldn't even see. It was a nightmare."
He believes the noise he thought was gunfire was all of the windows exploding.
The neighbor in the apartment just above him was among the dead, he said. If it wasn't for his dog, a terrier-Chihuahua mix named Brat, he believes he would be too. Around 1 a.m., Brat started barking and running laps around the apartment, alerting him to the fire and allowing him time to escape before it consumed the entire building. He was treated on scene for smoke inhalation.
Firefighters arrived to find heavy smoke and flames coming from the windows and out the roof of the two-story structure, which had 10 apartments, said Winchester Fire Chief Cathy Rigney. Some people jumped from second-story windows to get away.
Edwards, a 46-year-old former professional bull rider, said he heard a thud near him as he escaped, but the smoke was so thick he couldn't see what it was. He learned later it was a man who jumped from the second floor landing to the ground. That man broke an arm in the fall, he said.
Rigney says two people were found dead at the scene and a third died in a hospital. Five more were taken to the hospital by medics, and other injured people drove themselves for treatment. Investigators remained at the scene after daybreak trying to determine the cause.
Rose Neal woke up around 1 a.m. after hearing a loud boom. She went outside and saw flames shooting from another building in her complex, where her relatives lived with three small children. She found them safe though shaken.
One of them, a toddler, suffered burns to the back of her neck as the family made its desperate escape from the blaze, Neal said.
"It's devastating, it's not what you want to wake up to," she said as she sat surveying the ruins of the charred building Friday morning. "They lost everything. Everything is gone."
All those who died were adults, Rigney said. Neal said she knew an elderly woman who perished in the fire.
Edwards said he did not have a smoke detector installed in his apartment.
But James Tackett, the property owner, said he cleans each apartment when a tenant moves out and ensures it has a working smoke detector before the next moves in. Some of the apartments are government subsidized, so must pass inspection and wouldn't if the smoke detectors didn't work. He said the apartments have small stoves that frequently set off the detectors, so some tenants take them down or remove the batteries.
Doug Hogan with the state Public Protection Cabinet said the state requires the owner or manager of rental properties to install and maintain smoke detectors.
Rigney said she didn't know if each unit had a working detector, and determining that will be part of the investigation.
Teresa Henry, the city's code enforcement officer, said they had received no complaints against the apartment complex for several years. The complaints then had been about a bed bug infestation.
Andrew Cunningham rushed outside when he saw the firetrucks arrive and saw the building across from him entirely engulfed in flames. He estimated that the flames were 20-feet high. Some of his neighbors were injured; others sat on the ground weeping.
All lost everything. Community groups rushed to find clothes and supplies for the families displaced.
Edwards escaped with only Brat and the clothes he was wearing.
"The screams," he said, hours after the fire was extinguished. "I still hear them."