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High Street residents not allowed home yet after Petersburg fire

PETERSBURG, Va. – Plumes of hot smoke drifted up from the charred remains of a historic building to meet falling snow, 24 hours after a blaze ignited while tenants were sleeping.

Petersburg officials said that at this time the cause of the fire is unknown and investigations are underway. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said 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. There were no reported injuries or casualties to any of the 80 plus tenants who live in the immediate area.

Dominion Energy is continuously working to restore power to High Street. Power is expected to be restored soon, however, there is no definitive time for complete restoration.

Access remains limited to the High Street site, but residents of 420 High Street can return only to retrieve small items.

Petersburg Police will be on site at 420 High Street from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on January 17, 18 and 19 to assist residents. Proper identification is required.

Red Cross Virginia is also still working will affected residents and can be reached at 804-481-5521.

At this time, it is requested that donations are not brought to the High Street site or the Petersburg Transit Station.

Anyone needing further assistance can also call the Non-Emergency line at 804-732-4222.

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

"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.

"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.

Rhonda Harris

Multiple response effort

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.

he 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.

Petersburg fire

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."