Trapped in fire, he saw a window: ‘I grabbed my daughter, and I didn't think twice’

As smoke entered their living room, Anselmo Martinez said his family had no choice but to jump from a backroom third-floor window to avoid being engulfed by oncoming flames.

At least two families fled the fire at an east Charlotte apartment complex Monday by jumping to safety from a window.

“I grabbed my daughter, and I didn’t think twice,” Martinez, 38, said Tuesday through a translator.

The fire ripped through the Woodscape apartments in east Charlotte early Monday, destroying 40 units and leaving 130 residents homeless. Seven were injured and $300,000 in damage was caused by the fire, which the Charlotte Fire Department said Monday was intentionally set.

The American Red Cross created a temporary shelter for the families at nearby Albemarle Road Middle School, and 80 residents slept on cots in the shelter Monday night.

By Tuesday, dozens of families were at the shelter, as the Red Cross sought to quickly find permanent living arrangements for the victims.

“We basically need to find 40 different families apartments that were comparable with what they were living with,” said Angela Broome Powley, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross.

The families spent Tuesday meeting with caseworkers to begin looking for new homes, while children played on the school’s steps and volunteers hauled cases of water into the shelter.

Martinez stood with his 4-year-old daughter, Chelsea, in the school as the two waited for his wife, Monica, to be released from the hospital. Martinez’s wife fractured a bone in her back during the family’s escape from their third floor apartment.

Smoke prevented the family from escaping through their front door, and as the flames from downstairs began to spread to their living room, Martinez said the family made the quick decision to jump to safety from a backroom window. His wife jumped first, injuring her back as she landed on the ground. She gathered the strength to quickly catch her daughter as Martinez threw the couple’s 4-year-old out of the window before jumping himself.

He said he could hear the wood in the apartment cracking as heat from the flames approached his back.

“It was a very hot air,” he said. “And the smoke we were breathing, too, was very bad. You could smell plastic.”

Helmer Valle, 39, said his family escaped the fire in a similar way. He was alerted to the fire when a downstairs neighbor woke him by throwing rocks at his window. Valle’s family also couldn’t escape through their door because of smoke, so he and his wife had to throw their two children, an 8-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl, out of a window and into the arms of neighbors outside.

Valle suffered a leg injury from the jump, but he said it was the best way to save his family.

“I’d rather they get hurt than get burned,” he said.

The Red Cross has partnered with New Hope Baptist Church, which has provided clothes for the residents. People can make monetary donations to the victims through the Red Cross or donate food and clothes to the church.

As they await decisions on living arrangements, many of the residents were left wondering Tuesday why fire alarms didn’t sound. Several residents complained they had no warning from their smoke detectors.

“For this kind of situation to happen and it not go off, that was real, real scary,” said Kawon Taylor, 27, who fled the complex with his fiancee and 9-year-old son.

Martinez said his family could’ve properly escaped with advance warning from their smoke detector, but he’s just happy to make it out alive. He’s not even fazed about replacing the family’s valuables.

“I don’t really care about my belongings,” he said. “I’m very glad that I was able to jump, and I’m going to be able to continue to work. And I can start again from scratch.”

LaVendrick Smith; 704-358-5101; @LaVendrickS