published Thursday, November 24th, 2011

Families pick up pieces after blaze at East Ridge condos

Teena and Randy Ray stand outside the burnt remnants of their condo at the Belvoir Hills Estates after a fire tore through the complex last Friday.  An explosion set a neighbor's deck on fire which quickly spread to the other units of the complex.  The Rays lost their three cats and many of their possessions.  Teena said that despite the loss, they are celebrating their safety for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Teena and Randy Ray stand outside the burnt remnants of their condo at the Belvoir Hills Estates after a fire tore through the complex last Friday. An explosion set a neighbor's deck on fire which quickly spread to the other units of the complex. The Rays lost their three cats and many of their possessions. Teena said that despite the loss, they are celebrating their safety for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Photo by Jenna Walker.

Teena and Randy Ray will spend this Thanksgiving in Clarksville, Tenn., staying with Teena's sister for a few days before coming back home to East Ridge.

But "coming back home" is a complicated notion now that the couple's 1,250-square-foot condo is a charred mess of splintered wood and dangling wires.

"It's tough to look at," said Teena Ray as she stood behind the burned-out home Wednesday. "But we have so much to be grateful for -- we were able to get out of there."

The Rays are one of 16 families displaced by the fire that caused more than $1 million in damage and destroyed eight condominiums Friday night at Belvoir Hills Estates off Bacon Trail.

East Ridge officials have called it one of the largest fires they've dealt with in years.

No one was injured in the fire, but a handful of pets -- including the Rays' three cats -- were killed.

Over the past week, investigators and insurance adjusters have scoured the scene, trying to pinpoint what sparked the blaze.

East Ridge Department of Public Safety spokesman Erik Hopkins said propane tanks connected to residents' grills may have fueled the blaze, but that's not certain.

"A lot of the evidence was consumed by the fire," said Hopkins, who added that a definite cause will likely be released next week.

The Rays were cooking Friday evening when they both heard a loud explosion. Randy Ray rushed outside to see the deck of the neighboring condo consumed in flames.

While they waited for first responders, the Rays grabbed their computer, some jewelry and prescription drugs from their home before they had to bolt. The Rays' cats -- Arthur, Mudball and Little Miss -- had hidden in the condo, out of their reach.

Minutes later, the Rays watched the condo they had owned for 13 years go up in flames.

They are still grappling with what they believe was an inadequate initial emergency response.

"I think they thought it was just going to be a little deck fire when they first showed up," said Randy Ray.

Six other fire departments eventually came in to help East Ridge crews extinguish the blaze, according to Hopkins. He said Friday that firefighters conducted an exterior attack "due to the extent of the fire and the tremendous danger to firefighters."

The Rays also said the crews on scene had little sensitivity for the distraught residents. When the Rays' neighbors came back to find their home in flames, they screamed and collapsed.

"One of the officers eventually came over and asked, 'What's wrong with her?' I was so mad I just snapped back, 'She's just found out her house is destroyed and her pets are dead,'" Teena Ray said.

The Red Cross has been working with residents displaced by the fire, linking the victims to food, clothing and medications, said Michael Puryear, client case work supervisor for the organization. Tenants in the condos were required to have insurance, and most have found temporary homes with friends and family, Puryear said.

Insurance adjusters are still assessing the property to determine how much of it can be saved. At least one half of the condo complex will be razed, said Hopkins.

The Rays are staying at a rental property they own, and are pulling together "the basics" such as toiletries, shoes and coats. In spurts, Teena Ray remembers the things that are now gone: Her father's Navy memorabilia. Her mother's silver. Her grandmother's rocker.

"Each one kind of hurts. But we're doing much better than I thought we would be," Teena Ray said.

They have been buoyed by prayer, phone calls, and encouraging emails, Teena Ray said, including a note her niece posted on Facebook for Thanksgiving, listing things she was grateful for.

"The first thing she wrote was that she was 'thankful Aunt Teena and Uncle Randy are fine after the fire,'" Teena Ray said.

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