Downtown apartment building goes up in flames

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Investigators with the Memphis Fire Department are still trying to determine the cause of a massive fire that broke out at the construction site of a new downtown apartment complex Friday morning.

The Forum Flats, a four-story apartment building at East Pontotoc Avenue and South Danny Thomas Boulevard, was scheduled to open this fall.

Construction crews hadn't yet begun work for the day on the building and no one was inside when the fire started.

More than 200 firefighters and emergency personnel responded to the three-alarm fire at 5:46 a.m. It took them hours struggling to douse the fierce flames while hunks of fiery wood and brick fell to the ground.

Flames shot out of the roof of the building as plumes of heavy smoke rose into the air and blanketed much of the downtown area. The heavy smoke could be seen and smelled for miles. Crews remained at the scene until 6 p.m.

Damage to the building was estimated at $5 million. The Memphis Fire Department hadn't determined a cause by Friday night, but said the fire started on the first level.

Even though he lives hundreds of yards away, Robert Carey and several of his neighbors were forced to douse their homes when embers and burning debris started flying.

“It was scary because I’ve never seen chunks of fire flying through the air, falling on houses and also falling on people that were out here," he said. "I just grabbed the water hose as I quick as I could to spray everything down to try and save people and save homes... I’ve never seen a fire this big, especially this close to my home. I can feel the heat from the fire, so it's very intense."

Across the alley, the flames came dangerously close to Streets Ministries, an organization that mentors more than a hundred kids a day and gives them a safe place to hang out after school. It had to shut down for the day.

“Honestly, the biggest concern is when are we going to be able to open our building back up," said Preston Albertine, Streets Ministries' development coordinator.

The apartments were part of a new development project meant to help revitalize the area.

“There’s a little bit of sadness, honestly, because it just delays the process a little more," Albertine said. “Grief for a community that’s been beat down a lot, that was really excited for a little bit of an uprising.”

No one was hurt, and firefighters were able to contain the fire to that one building.

The building is located in the South City community, but Memphis Housing and Community Development Director Paul Young said it’s owned by a private developer, although MHA had committed 47 vouchers to the project.

"It is not a part of the South City Choice Neighborhoods grant, but the units being developed contribute to the replacement units that we have to deliver," he said.

Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 528-CASH (2274) or the State Arson Hotline at 1-800-762-3017.

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