'I thought I was going to die'

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Donaldson talks Monday about the blaze he escaped from at the Cedar Grove Apartments near Dorchester Road.

Michael Donaldson awoke early Monday and felt his dog, Tristan, gnawing on his hand.

The pet often got his attention that way, but not at 1 a.m.

Though still groggy from being awakened, Donaldson quickly understood; a smoke alarm was bleating as smoke filled his North Charleston apartment.

Soon, he found himself looking from a third-story window, wondering if he should jump. How would he save his dog?

"The flames were pretty much licking the window right next to me," the 32-year-old recalled several hours later. "I was so scared sitting up there. I thought I was going to die."

The fire at the Cedar Grove Apartments destroyed Donaldson's apartment and another next door occupied by a couple.

The Carolina Lowcountry Chapter of the American Red Cross was helping 11 people who had been displaced from seven units in building No. 4, said Nancy Olson, the chapter's development associate.

North Charleston fire investigators, meanwhile, were looking into the cause of the fire and its point of origin.

Firefighters were dispatched at 1:21 a.m. and spent 20 to 30 minutes bringing the flames under control, Battalion Chief Eric Phillips said. During their efforts, one firefighter was shocked by some equipment; he left Summerville Medical Center after receiving treatment.

An Air Force technical sergeant, Donaldson arrived in the Lowcountry in June after being assigned to Charleston Air Force Base. The move meant leaving his friends and colleagues back at Hurlburt Field in Florida, so he got a medium-size Japanese hunting dog called a Kai Ken as a companion.

By waking him up Monday, his 8-month-old friend might have saved his life.

In the smoke-filled apartment, Donaldson's first move was to try to open his bedroom door.

"It was like a wall of smoke," he said.

He retreated, then tried the window. The glass was too thick to break easily. Frantically, he opened it and broke out the screen.

"I started yelling, 'Fire, fire!' "

People gathered below and someone called 911.

Donaldson waited minutes without hearing sirens. A patio door just feet away from him burst open. He could feel intense heat on his left arm. Inside, Tristan dug his claws into the carpet in terror.

A woman below told him to throw the dog to safety. Donaldson thought he might have to jump, too, so he did.

Tristan scratched him as he pulled him from the floor. He heaved him out the window, but the woman below was unable to catch him.

About four minutes passed, Donaldson estimated, before firefighters arrived.

Engine 11 and Engine 12 were the first at the scene. The firefighters told him not to jump, that they would reach him. Capt. Gerald Kennedy and Firefighter Christopher Ward scaled an extension ladder and brought him down.

Donaldson was safe, with only slight injuries. As he descended the ladder, the firefighters told him not to look, but it was too late.

"I saw my dog on the ground," he said. "That was really hard for me."