Columbia brothers save 9 people from burning apartments

Originally published in The State newspaper Oct. 10, 2012. Read it on

Terrell Hammonds says divine intervention opened his eyes at 5 a.m. Wednesday.

“God woke me up,” he said.

First, he smelled the smoke from his bed. Outside, there was an orange glow of a fire just starting on the front porch of his first-floor apartment. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to extinguish the blaze, but nothing came out of the nozzle. He yelled for his brother Terrance, who tried to extinguish the flames with a pot of water. The fire didn’t go out.

“I was racing against time,” Terrell said. “I went out and started banging on everybody’s doors.”

As the building went up in flames, the brothers knocked on every door at Stoney Creek Apartments’ building 18 until each of the eight residents and one child inside were out. Then, they stood in the parking lot and waited for firefighters to arrive.

Shameka James was asleep in one of the building’s other apartments when the fire started. Terrell Hammonds woke her up and made sure she got out of the building before the flames spread to her unit, she said.

“If he wasn’t there, I might not have made it out on time,” she said.

“Everybody stood and watched the building burn down,” Terrell Hammonds said. “There was nothing else we could do.”

An Irmo Fire District battalion chief arrived within about five minutes and found a heavy fire at the apartment building off on Berryhill Drive in the St. Andrews area, Irmo Fire Marshal Jeff Allen said.

Once firefighters were sure everyone was out of the building and uninjured, they spent the next two hours bringing the blaze under control. Every one of the building’s residents was displaced by the fire.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Allen said it seems to have started accidentally.

The fire spread quickly, climbing up the walls of Terrance and Terrell Hammonds’ apartment before crossing to the other side of the building through the attic, Allen said. Then, he said, falling debris set the second floor apartment across the hall ablaze.

“People don’t realize that fire can double in size every sixty seconds,” Allen said.

The American Red Cross is providing three days of housing to the nine residents, along with Terrell Hammonds’ sister and a third brother, who weren’t home at the time of the fire. The Red Cross also gave the residents clothes and food and is working with the apartment complex to get the everyone relocated.

Residents spent most of the day pulling what they could from the rubble of their apartments. Terrance Hammonds said he wasn’t sure what his family was going to do next.

“We’re going to take it day by day and build up each others’ confidence,” he said.

Nearly 12 hours after the fire started, Terrell Hammonds was still sitting outside the building on a plastic stool. He was upset to have lost everything but said he was grateful everyone was OK.

“If I had woken up 5 minutes later, we might not be here,” he said.