Update 2 p.m. Monday: Baton Rouge Fire Department investigators on Monday concluded the cause of this apartment fire was an unattended pot left on the stove.
After waking up around midnight Sunday to get a drink, Stacey James smelled smoke in her Baton Rouge apartment. Stepping outside, she saw that an apartment in her six-unit building on North 23rd Street was engulfed in flames — and could hear a young girl screaming for help from inside.
James rushed up the exterior flight of stairs and banged on the locked door until Ray Fitzgerald, one of the residents of the burning apartment, opened it. Smoke billowed out through the door and the rush of fresh air stoked the flames, witnesses said Sunday.
James said she rushed inside, following the sounds of the young child’s screams as she groped her way through the thick smoke. She found the little girl, Angelina Johnson, huddled in a corner of the living room and pulled her outside to safety.
“I heard the baby screaming, but you couldn’t really see because of all the black smoke,” James said Sunday from the parking lot outside the building at 1433 N. 23rd St.
Fitzgerald had also rushed back inside the apartment, apparently to try to rescue his girlfriend, Angelica Conrad, and her younger daughter, Andrea Johnson, who were still inside, James said. But Fitzgerald disappeared into the smoke and didn’t come back out.
Baton Rouge firefighters arrived minutes later at 12:26 a.m. and found flames shooting out the windows of the apartment.
A crew of three firefighters in full gear used an axe to break down the door and fought their way inside, Baton Rouge Fire Department spokesman Curt Monte said, while a second crew followed to join the search.
In a back bedroom firefighters found Fitzgerald passed out near Andrea, his girlfriend’s younger daughter who’d lost consciousness in the smoke, Monte said. Conrad was found unconscious in a nearby bedroom, according to Monte.
The three were rushed to a hospital where they remained Sunday evening, Monte said.
C.J. Sanders, Conrad’s nephew, said the three were recovering and were able to sit up and talk by late Sunday afternoon.
Angelina, the older of Conrad’s two daughters whom James pulled out to safety, was treated at a hospital for minor smoke inhalation but was released Sunday.
After rescuing the three from the burning apartment, the firefighters set to work battling the fire for 40 minutes before bringing it under control shortly after 1 a.m., Monte said.
The firefighters were able “to extinguish the blaze before it could spread to other apartments in the building,” Monte said.
Janice Jones, a home health nurse who also lives in the building, said she came home from work to see flames erupting through the roof of Conrad’s second floor apartment.
Jones and James both said their apartments smelled strongly of smoke and had water damage.
The front door of Conrad’s apartment, which had been hacked through by firefighters, hung open Sunday afternoon, revealing the charred remains of furniture, toys and other belongings inside the living room and kitchen, while sunshine came through the roof in places where the fire had burned its way through.
“I’m surprised they survived because it was engulfed real bad,” James said while sitting in the parking lot with her two nephews, wrapped in a blanket and waiting for the apartment’s manager to come by to begin repairs.
The Baton Rouge Fire Department noted that none of the apartments in the complex have working smoke detectors.
James, though, disputed that point, saying that her apartment had two smoke detectors and that all of the units in the building have fire extinguishers.
Monte noted that Sunday was the first day of National Fire Prevention Week. This year’s theme, Monte said, is “Hear the beep when you sleep.”
“It’s really pressing the fact that folks need to have smoke detectors in their homes,” Monte said.