Twenty-four hours after a blaze erupted at a Northwest Austin apartment complex for the second time in five years, residents began piecing together the burned and waterlogged remnants of their lives.
They carried clothes and computers out of their apartments Tuesday morning as the acrid smell of smoke still hung in the air, shards of shattered glass still lay on the ground and caution tape fluttered in the wind.
“Just be glad for what you have, it can be gone in no time,” said Ryan Nelson, who lived in a bottom-floor unit that was largely spared from the fire, but was soaked by the water used to fight it. “I was 10 feet away from everything being destroyed.”
Just above his unit, sunlight pierced through the giant hole in the roof and onto the wreckage of what used to be the apartments on the two floors above his.
Two friends stood outside, forming a sort of bucket brigade to help Nelson get his belongings out of his old apartment and into waiting cars, moving as quickly as they could as they feared the unit’s waterlogged ceiling could collapse.
“It’s like I’m homeless,” Nelson said. “Everything happens for a reason, we’ve just got to find out why.”
Every single one of the 24 units in Building No. 9 of The Hendrix Apartments on the southern edge of Williamson County was either damaged or destroyed in Monday’s blaze. Authorities said Tuesday the cause of the blaze was still undetermined and might never be known.
“That’s a pretty common outcome, especially when there’s heavy fire damage,” said Division Chief Palmer Buck of the Austin Fire Department, which helped respond to the fire and investigate its cause.
The fire broke out shortly before 9:30 a.m. Christmas Day at the building, which sits on the 9800 block of Copper Creek Drive, just south of the U.S. 183 and Texas 45 interchange.
Firefighters from the Jollyville and Austin fire departments raced to the scene and managed to confine the inferno to the one building.
It was the second time in five years that firefighters have battled a major blaze at the complex. In November 2012, a wind-fueled fire there damaged three buildings and displaced dozens.
News of the Christmas Day fire traveled in sometimes circuitous fashion.
Nelson said he was at work when he received a call three hours after the fact from an apartment complex employee wanting to know if he had a place to stay. He rushed back to his burning building to find his cat, who was safe.
Resident Scott Burrows was in Houston when he found out about the fire from his mother-in-law, who lives in Florida and was listed as his family’s emergency contact with the complex.
Burrows and his wife hit the road early Tuesday to get back and see what they had left. One key family member, their cat, was found safe — but scared to death — behind a washer and dryer.
“We lost all the things that can be replaced,” he said.
They had been planning on moving anyway when their lease ran out, he said. “Now we don’t have much of a choice.”