KNOXVILLE (WATE) - A massive fire that began early Thursday morning destroyed 30 units at Eastowne Village Apartments, claimed one man's life and displaced 66 people.
Crews with the Knoxville Fire Department remain at the apartment complex behind Knoxville Center Mall on Thursday evening.
John Dillard, 47, is believed to have died due to the fire, according to this brother, Knoxville attorney Tom Dillard. A body was recovered at 10:15 a.m. and taken to the Regional Forensic Center.
Tom Dillard, who represented George Thomas, a convict in the Christian-Newsom murders, and former Knox County Law Director Bill Lockett in his tax evasion case, says his brother had lived in his apartment for years and was wheelchair-bound due to a disease that caused muscle atrophy.
John Dillard graduated from Central High School in 1982, served as a Marine from 1982 to 1990 and as an officer in the San Diego Police Department from 1991 to 2006.
Residents who would pass Dillard on the way to the mailbox say he always smiled. One resident shared with the Dillard family, "You are in our prayers, and we'll keep him in our memory here in this complex."
A maintenance worker at the apartments, Jackie Jordan, says he tried to get into Dillard's apartment, where he lived alone, after the fire broke out, but the inside chain on the door was latched and the fire was too intense.
Fifty-three adults and 13 children lost their homes and everything in them when the three-story building at 5218 Village Crest Way became engulfed in flames around 4:00 a.m.
Fire crews say the flames also spread to one of the buildings next door at 5220 Village Crest Way.
A portion of a building collapsed, destroying all of its 30 units about 45 minutes after fire crews arrived. Twenty-nine of those units were occupied.
Officials say units at the building next door were damaged.
One building at the complex, 5219, was not damaged.
Forty families lost their homes.
Some residents heard what sounded like a loud explosion. Others awoke to smoke alarms going off. And some were awakened by screams.
"I heard a big boom and I thought it was thunder and I rolled back over to go to sleep. Then I heard it a couple more times. Then someone was ringing my doorbell and banging on my door to get out that there was a fire," Anthony Starritt said.
Families rushed into the parking lot with only what they could carry. Some didn't have time to grab coats or shoes.
"I was able to get my cats and the clothes that I have on and get out," Starritt said.
Rita Lee is visiting Knoxville. She was awake in the building where the fire started and was one of the first people to alert sleeping residents.
"I heard boom, boom, boom, and me being from Chicago, I thought it was gun shots, like get down. Then I heard crackling and looked out and the house was on fire," Lee said.
"The very first thing they (fire crews) did was start making sure everyone was out of the building, apartment by apartment, knocking on doors, going in and searching and making sure people were out," said Capt. Mark Wilbanks.
"After we did our rescue operations, we did some initial attack. It didn't work for us, too much fire," Capt. Wilbanks explained. Ladder trucks have poured thousands of gallons of water onto the affected area.
Fire crews used about 2,000 feet of hoses to fight the flames. They found debris around 500 feet from the scene.
Investigators are working to determine the cause of the fire, but they say it may take a long time or they may never be able to say what started the blaze.
The apartment complex, which was mostly wood siding, was recently inspected by a fire marshal and had no violations. It has a central fire alarm.
Eight members of a Red Cross volunteer disaster team determined the immediate needs of victims, and they are helping with food, clothing and temporary lodging. Many residents will be able to move into vacant apartments.
"When we get on scene we work with the fire department to compare notes to see who has talked with who to quickly to get an assessment. With these large fires like this, it's one of the most important aspects of our partnership," said Red Cross Director of Disaster Services Mary Beth Birge.
"This happens every day in this community. That's what people forget is these house fires happen all the time, and it's really important to have the resources to help people get started again," Birge added.
Over the next several days, caseworkers will continue working with the victims and provide referrals as they begin their recovery process.
The Red Cross is asking for monetary donations to support its efforts to help the families. Officials estimate the fire will cost the Red Cross between $30,000 and $50,000.
A Red Cross shelter for the victims was set to open Thursday night at a church called City on a Hill in Knoxville Center Mall, but no one needed to use it.
A Red Cross phone bank hosted by 6 News for two hours Thursday night raised $15,000 for the victims of the fire.
The Red Cross later said it reached its goal of $30,000 in donations for the fire. The organization is still accepting donations for possible future events and thanks East Tennesseans for their generous outpouring of support.
The Eastowne Village Apartments complex, owned by David G. Brown, is valued at $6 million. It opened in 1990.