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Carolina Beach fire survivor: ‘The most troubling part is not knowing how it happened’

Updated: Apr. 5, 2021 at 7:51 PM EDT
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CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - Ten minutes is all it took to change over a dozen lives as a fire, described as an inferno, tore through a condo complex in Carolina Beach. People watched as they lost everything; some, like Callie Ryan, even jumped from the third story to escape the flames.

“Hold your loved ones tight and make sure you always know a way out of your house,” said Ryan, now in the hospital recovering from her injuries sustained during the fall. “If you’re on the third floor, I’d recommend a ladder.”

Paradise Cove residents were in shock at first because the fire came without warning. What was almost as shocking as the fire was how quickly the community stepped in to make sure those that lost everything still had support and a place to call home.

“We’ve opened up 12 cases so far,” said James Jarvis, executive director of the Cape Fear chapter of the American Red Cross. “My understanding is that 15 people were displaced from this building behind me. We have helped a couple folks in the adjacent structures, especially the first night when one of the adjacent structures wasn’t cleared yet by the fire department, so we helped them with some lodging overnight.”

Callie Ryan has lived at Paradise Cove for less than a year. Last Friday, it was just her and her dog at home when things went south.

“I saw a bunch of smoke pouring in my house, but my alarm wasn’t going off and we also have sprinkler heads, and they weren’t going off, either,” said Ryan.

She put her hand on the front door and found it was hot to the touch. That’s when she went for the window of her third story apartment, knowing it was her only hope. She grabbed a knife to cut the screen, but she couldn’t save her dog.

“I set the dog down for two seconds to cut the screen and she got scared and ran back in the room,” said Ryan. “I couldn’t get her because by that point, the whole house had filled up with smoke.”

Neighbors tried to find furniture to break her fall, but there wasn’t time — she had to jump.

“I knew I was hurt pretty bad. I wasn’t fully positive of the extent, but when I got into the ambulance, I kind of thought that I might not be able to use my legs. It was just numb from the waist down.”

Ryan had broken her back. At the hospital, doctors used screws to stabilize her back and told Ryan she’ll have a long road to recovery. She’ll need hours of physical therapy so she can one day walk again.

As terrifying as the afternoon had become, there was hope on the horizon. Within hours, community members were stopping by to help any way they could. In a close-knit community, it’s not unheard of for residents to come together in a time of need.

“It’s not surprising anymore,” said Al Holbrook with American Legion Post 129. I knew this was going to happen, but I didn’t know this much was going to happen.”

The American Legion across the street from the condominiums is filled wall-to-wall with donations. Since there are too many for just the survivors to take in, the American Legion says it’s available to everyone for just $5 per bag. The proceeds will go to the Pleasure Island Disaster Relief Fund.

It’s a worst-case scenario kind of scene, but it could have been worse. The residents all got out alive and Ryan isn’t feeling so alone as she starts her long road to recovery.

“This is just a bump in the road. If anything, I’ll just come out stronger,” said Ryan. “I definitely have a big sense of community that wants me to get better and is definitely pushing me.”

However, the community’s support can’t erase the loss Ryan and her neighbors are dealing with. She hopes she’ll one day get closure by finding out how such a tragedy could happen.

“The most troubling part to me is not knowing how it happened,” said Ryan. “They haven’t told me yet, but I would definitely like to know what caused it, because it’s very hard to sleep at night not knowing.”

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