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‘She’s a hero’: Petersburg woman warned residents as fire ignited

PETERSBURG, Va. – Early Tuesday morning a massive fire destroyed a historic Petersburg factory building, and endangered the lives of sleeping tenants, though no one was injured.

The fire blazed so hot and high that the sky was orange, and still 12 hours later, firefighters are working to put out hot spots. The fire chief said that crews were dispatched around 5:20 a.m. Tuesday and they arrived to find significant smoke from vacant structure in the 420-block of High Street.

A catwalk bridges that structure with the residential building. The chief said that fire, heat and smoke was pushed through catwalk and ignited fire in the occupied structure.

That section at 420 High Street has three phases of housing: townhomes, condominiums and apartments.

"I head the fire alarm and thought it was a false alarm,” said tenant Allen Carpenter, but like many, he quickly realized this was the real thing when he saw the fire’s glow.

Carpenter was outside safe when the empty building walls collapsed onto High Street. Many credited Rhonda Harris for the fact that there were no injuries.

"She's a hero for this community,” said Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, Petersburg City Manager, for risking her life to save others.

"Because I care for these people,” Harris, a leasing agent for the High Street Lofts, as well as a tenant, said she took off running.

Rhonda Harris

"I left phase three out the front door to phase two and I set off the fire alarms in the building and I went screaming up and down the hallways for everyone to get out,” Harris said.

"Well I think she saved lives obviously,” Carpenter said.

Fire crews laid more than 4,000 feet of five-inch supply line to bring in the water to fight the fire. Along the way they encountered one frozen hydrant and others with low water pressure --common for this historic area of the city and worked around by isolating one of the city's water tanks.

"We cut off all the pumps at Mount Vernon to allocate all the water in that tank, which is six and half million gallons to this fire and we increased the flow from ARWA, who we purchase our water from to 8 million gallons to supplement that tank,” said Jerry Byerly, Petersburg Dir. Public Utilities.

The chief said that because they were in defensive mode fighting the fire, it was all about volume, not pressure.

He said that they activated mutual aid response plans with Colonial Heights, Hopewell, and Petersburg.

At least three of the nearby town homes are destroyed, according to Tim Harris, who is married to the leasing agent. Harris said every resident is required to have insurance to live there.

Antoinette Johnson and her 17-year-old son watched the flames rage while just wearing pajamas and sharing a blanket.

"When you looked outside the sky was orange," Johnson recalled. "I heard a lot of people screaming. People were just running frantically, knocking on doors telling everybody to get out there's a fire."

Cedric Warren drove up to the fire in progress, and against the advice from firefighters, ran inside his apartment to grab his dog.

"They told me I couldn't get in the building but I had to get my dog," Warren said. "I had to go in and save my dog."

The American Red Cross of Virginia is on scene helping those displaced by the fire.

"Our first priority is to support the immediate needs of residents displaced as a result of this fire,” Red Cross Communications Director Jonathan McNamara said. “Over the coming hours we will work with Petersburg Fire and City officials to determine the full scope of how our volunteers can best assist all those in need of support.”

The Seward Luggage Factory building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Commerce Street Industrial Historic District.