Briarleigh Court in Hillsville burns

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Following the Saturday morning blaze at Briarleigh Court apartments on North Main Street, one resident suffered burns and smoke inhalation and remains hospitalized.

Emergency officials say that the fire started at about 4:30 a.m. at the apartments owned by Rural Development.

All 37 residents of the independent living facility for the elderly were accounted for. Three of them had smoke inhalation.

Resident Emily Bowman remained in good condition at Twin County Regional Hospital Monday after being admitted for treatment.

Neighbors started alerting neighbors of the emergency, said Hillsville Police Chief Steve Williams. "When the smoke starting filling up the rooms, people started waking up and they realized something wasn't right.”

Williams also gave credit to three police officers who responded to the scene for going in to evacuate the residents.

Ricky Hayes of the Hillsville Police Department, Bobby Lyons of the Carroll Sheriff's Office and Matthew Cochran of the Virginia State Police were among the first to arrive at Briarleigh Court, and they went into the burning building repeatedly to make sure everybody got out, Williams said.

Jackie Sexton was one of the residents who went up and down hallways, knocking on doors and making sure that her neighbors knew what was going on — especially those who are hard of hearing.

Many people went outside into temperatures hovering around 10 degrees, in their nightgowns and barefoot, because they had to leave in a hurry.

May Myers lived close to where the fire started, but was unaware of the emergency until people woke her from her sleep. "They had to bust my door in to get me out. I didn't hear anything."

Myers had no insurance and lost everything. She is staying with family.

Sexton noted that she got a change of clothes from Leon Goad and his ministry at New Life Church. She hopes that the community will come together to show their love and help to those who lost everything in the fire.

"It's really a miracle, a divine miracle, that we got out safe and sound," Sexton said. "It could have been a lot worse."

What happened won't deter Sexton from returning to her apartment, she said. "I mean I want to come back. I love the people here."

Authorities took most of the residents from the 40-unit facility to the Grover King Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1115, where the American Red Cross had set up a temporary shelter, according to a news release from the disaster relief agency.

"Residents were provided with a warm place to stay and hot meals while in the shelter," said Amy Whittaker, spokeswoman for the Roanoke Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross. "The shelter was closed by noon Saturday, with residents having found temporary places to stay.

"In the days to come, the Red Cross will continue to work with the individuals to meet any additional needs that may arise."

The Hillsville Police Department continued to investigate the cause of the fire on Monday.

It started in the residential area in the southwestern portion of the building and caused significant damage to about 10 apartments, said Briarleigh Court manager Michelle Furr. Firewalls appeared to serve their intended purpose and kept damage from spreading throughout the building, though they were still assessing the mechanical systems on Monday.

Furr did not know when residents would be allowed to return.

Early on, authorities ruled out anything suspicious about the fire.

Briarleigh Court had considerable damage, but Carroll Emergency Services Director Roma, who was on scene at the fire, held off on providing an estimate.

The firewalls helped emergency personnel contain the blaze to the southwest portion of the building. Firefighters went in and battled the blaze through the doors of the facility, on the porches and through the roof.

Flames spread across the roof at the corner of the building.

Water and electricity to the facility were shut down after the fire. "The building won't be occupied for a while," Roma said.

The cause of the blaze was still unknown Monday. Roma could not be more specific than the belief that the fire started in the residential section of the building.

"Give me a couple days," Roma said when asked Monday if a cause had been determined.

Many fire and rescue agencies responded to the scene and blocked off a section of North Main Street before extinguishing the blaze around 7 a.m., Roma said.

Hillsville Fire Department received assistance from many other emergency agencies, including Cana, Laurel Fork, Galax, Carroll Fire/Rescue, Wytheville and Surry County fire departments, as well as Pipers Gap, Laurel, Laurel Fork and Cana rescue squads.

"They all did an outstanding job," Roma said.

No emergency personnel were injured. No fatalities were reported.

Firefighters sent out special thanks to local restaurants that provided food for the volunteers, as well as the Carroll County Public Schools for providing emergency heat for firefighters at the scene and use of a building.

About the response of the emergency personnel, police, agencies like the Red Cross and the VFW and even ordinary citizens, Furr said she's proud to live in a community where so many people wanted to help after the fire.