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Justin Mizzell turned on the siren to his squad car in hopes that the blaring sound would wake those asleep inside the Woodbridge Apartment Homes building that was in flames Tuesday morning.
The 27-year-old Berkeley County sheriff's deputy was not on duty yet, and was headed to work when he saw the building on fire and called 911.
"I saw fire on the porch. That's when I called it in," at about 4:36 a.m., he said. It didn't take the Charleston Fire Department long to arrive to the building at 2040 Ashley River Road, about three minutes, according to fire officials.
But in that time Mizzell went into action, knocking on doors to evacuate people from the burning building.
"Everybody was sleeping. When I knocked on the doors, no one knew what was going on," he said.
The fire quickly spread, and by the time Mizzell made it up to the third floor alerting residents, the smoke was thick.
"I couldn't see my hand through the smoke," he said.
Firefighters arrived at 4:39 a.m. and found that the fire already had spread to the building's roof, according to fire officials.
Everyone escaped the 20-unit building unharmed, fire officials said.
By 5:30 a.m. firefighters had the blaze under control, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Ryan Kunitzer.
Twelve apartments were damaged by fire and several others were damaged by water from the extinguishment. Approximately 35 people were displaced due to the fire, according to American Red Cross officials, who assisted with housing and food, as well as counseling services.
Jackie Hill, 30, who lives in a nearby Woodbridge apartment building, said she could see the fire from outside her sliding glass door.
Hill said she watched as firefighters went door to door waking up residents still unaware that their building was burning.
"By the time they'd gotten people out, (the fire) had jumped to other side of the building," Hill said.
Kunitzer said the fire started on a second-floor balcony, and the cause remains under investigation.
A partial roof collapse and the extent of the fire forced firefighters out of the building to fight the flames from the outside, officials said.
Initial reports indicated that someone may have been trapped, but Kunitzer said there was some initial confusion because the individual did not speak English. No one was trapped, the individual was later found outside the building, and everyone was accounted for, Kunitzer said.
The fire spread up the outside of the building from a balcony and into the attic space, fire officials said.
Residential fire sprinklers slowed the spread of the blaze into the apartments, providing extra time for the occupants to escape, Kunitzer said.
The fire came two years after a blaze drove three families from their apartment homes in the same community.
That afternoon blaze on Jan. 19, 2012, damaged the 700 building of the complex. It also did not injure anyone.
Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.