A few moments after Vernon Lane climbed into bed Thursday night, someone pounded on his door and yelled that there was a fire and he had to get out.
Lane grabbed a few things and ran from his first-floor apartment in Hidden Creek Apartments on East Brainerd Road. As soon as he stepped outside, Lane — a lieutenant in the Chattanooga Fire Department — could tell it was bad.
"I saw [the fire] was in the roof and I knew it was going to take off on me," he said.
He dumped his things in his truck and headed back inside to grab another load — and that's when he saw a baby hanging out of a third-floor window, dangling from its mother's hands. Behind Lane, some police officers were rushing toward the building with a mattress.
At that moment, the baby fell. And the mattress wasn't close enough.
He dove for the baby and crashed into some bushes. They hit the ground together, the baby in his arms. Before he could get up, a woman landed on his back — the baby's mother.
The 10-month-old boy was screaming, so Lane figured he was all right. Hamilton County Emergency Medical Services swooped up baby and mother, later identified as Bellnique Moon.
She and her husband both jumped — he went first and planned to turn around and catch his son, but was injured on impact and unable to help, fire department spokesman Bruce Garner said. The whole family is expected to be OK.
No one was killed in the blaze, which destroyed much of the apartment building and left more than a dozen families homeless. Fifty firefighters spent more than an hour bringing the flames under control, Garner said, although the first firefighters arrived two and a half minutes after the call came in at 10:33 p.m.
Garner said the firefighters' first priority is to clear the building, while at least one firefighter sets up the water supply as additional crews head to the scene.
The fast-spreading fire apparently had been burning for some time before it was discovered, Garner added.
Resident Kim Raymond said she was walking her dog about an hour before anything happened and thought she smelled a campfire.
"We didn't see anything, didn't hear anything popping — nothing," she said. "Didn't think anything about it."
She'd just lain down to watch TV when she thought she heard someone yelling. She ignored it at first, thinking her neighbors were just being noisy. But then her dog, Lola, started barking nonstop.
Raymond got up and looked out her peephole, but it was dark. She cracked her door open and realized there was a fire. The power was out in the hallway, but she could smell smoke as she ran out with Lola and a few things. Outside, she stood across the parking lot as the flames leaped high above the third floor. She could feel the heat.
Neither she nor Lane remember hearing any smoke alarms.
Firefighters initially tried to fight the fire from inside but had to pull back. The apartment complex was built in 1986, without attic firewalls that could have helped slow the flames' spread.
"Once the fire got into the attic, the flames just raced across the roof and there just wasn't much the firefighters could do to save the building," said Chief Chris Adams.
On Friday, Raymond stood outside the sooty rubble of her apartment and talked with a man from her insurance company. The burned-out shell of the building was unstable, so authorities used an excavator to knock down parts of it — a raw pile of bricks, boards, nails and insulation piled as high as the second story.
As Raymond looked at the pile, she saw bits and pieces of her life.
There, she could just make out her leopard-print sheets.
And there, her bedroom door, with the purple tassel still hanging on the knob.
"Somewhere in there is my fireproof safe," she said. Maybe she could salvage some photos from it.
She lost three pairs of cowboy boots. Her furniture, clothes — everything.
Between the fire and the water damage, not much from the apartment building will be salvageable, Lane said. His back bedroom burned, and the front of his apartment was covered in six inches of water.
After 15 years as a firefighter, it was odd for him to be on the other side of the blaze — a victim, rather than a first responder.
"It was totally devastating," he said. "It took a lot out of me. I can see how people feel now — it's tough."
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