RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Fifteen years ago today, fire crews were battling one of the biggest fires in Richmond history when an apartment complex under construction caught on fire on Broad Street.
The fire would eventually spark blazes on homes and buildings across the city.
8News sat down with the first responders who battled the flames that day for an inside look into how the fire impacted the city.
“It was very haunting and dooming,” said Richmond Fire Captain Sylvester Henderson. “There was fire everywhere, you look left, you look right, you look above you.”
Captain Henderson, a lieutenant in 2004, was the first officer on the scene of the fire. He watched it grow into an inferno in minutes. Henderson said he was in trouble when the car nearby exploded in flames.
It was the perfect storm for creating an out of control fire. A cigarette butt thrown in a trash dumpster below started a fire that burned up into the building, which was still under construction and just a wood frame at the time.
The high winds that day fanned the huge flames down to the VCU Arts building across the street. Once the wind gusts came through, there was no controlling the fire.
Thick, choking smoke enveloped downtown Richmond.
Hot embers from the fire, blown by the wind, were falling on roofs, decks, trees and yards near and far. Some traveled as far away as the Richmond Raceway Complex in eastern Henrico County.
“You had buildings on fire, you had houses on fire,” said Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter. “You had cars on fire, you had fire trucks on fire.”
Chief Carter says the 3-alarm blaze, which required 200 firefighters from across the region to battle 23 different fires, was the second biggest in the city’s history behind only the burning of Richmond at the end of the Civil War.
“This was worse than the worst-case scenario,” he recalled.
Richmond Fire Captain Keith Vida, a public information officer at the time, also spoke with 8News about the massive fire.
“It was almost like a bomb had gone off, ” he said, “debris all over Broad Street.”
Captain Vida says not everyone was calling 911 that day.
“It was chaotic, we had people running up, saying, hey, be advised, this house is on fire,” Vida told 8News.
It took roughly eight hours to get the fires under control. Crews would have to douse hotspots for the next two days.
Buildings, homes, businesses and cars were reduced to rubble and those that weren’t destroyed suffered major damage.
While no one died from the fire or smoke, there was one medical emergency death that day. The fire also caused millions of dollars in damages.