Dozing in and out of sleep, it wasn’t until the second round of loud knocks at Danielle Mudd’s door — this time accompanied by yelling — that she went to investigate. She didn’t think much of it due to a lack of alarms going off in her building — 1083 Lois Lane — or any other warnings, but upon opening the door, she was greeted by huge flames crawling up the side of the building.
Adam Suraz, a resident on the second floor, entered his kitchen for a bottle of water when he first smelled smoke. Seeing a cloud covering his deck, he attributed it to neighbors grilling below him and thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until the second time he left his room that he noticed the flames. Suraz immediately yelled as loudly as he could and pounded on all of his neighbors’ doors on his floor and those above him to warn anyone who may have still been inside.
Down a floor and one apartment to the left from Mudd, Kelly Vila was woken up to a similar sound of frantic knocking accompanied by her roommate’s quaking voice. When she opened the door, a rush of black smoke hit her face.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Vila, a senior economics major, said. “That has really been the worst experience of my life.”
At 12:06 p.m. in Stuarts Draft, Ian Bennett, the fire chief of the city of Harrisonburg, was eating lunch with the deputy chiefs from neighboring counties when the first call came in. At first, it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary, until he heard from the sheriff’s deputy that they had declared it a two-alarm fire, which adds three more engines, another ladder truck and a battalion chief — doubling the amount of a one-alarm. They immediately responded and headed to the scene.
Upon arrival, the battalion chief updated Bennett on the current status of the fire. By this time, it had surpassed the third alarm — due to exposures on either side of the building — and was subsequently declared a four-alarm fire, due to the delay in the arrival of volunteer firefighters.
Students were instructed to stay behind police tape in a section of the parking lot in front of the Southview Clubhouse, directly across from the building. Mudd, a junior psychology major, stood by with only her purse, Suraz couldn’t handle watching his apartment burn, so he went to his friend’s house, and Vila, who was shoeless, watched with only her phone. From there, residents looked on as the firefighters hosed down the burning building — its roof already partially collapsed.
“We had two ladder trucks being set up, which require separate water supplies,” Bennett said. “We were getting ready to put a third one up for the building on the right, when we didn’t have an extra engine, so we called a fifth alarm.”
The Harrisonburg Police Department and Southview management immediately began calling all 43 residents of 1083 Lois Lane. Bennett said within 35 minutes, they had contacted every one of them. Due to the gravity of the fire on the third floor, this came as a relief to the fire department, because it meant they could cease their efforts to reach the now completely-engulfed top level.
Bennett said the fire alarms in the building may not have initially sounded due to the fire starting outside the building and working its way up to the attic, which isn’t required by law to have smoke detectors, sprinklers or fire alarms. Due to the damage the building sustained, it’s unlikely the exact reason to why the fire alarms didn’t sound will be discovered. All that has been disclosed as of now is that the fire was caused by the “improper disposal of smoking material,” according to the Harrisonburg Fire Department.
For Mudd, Suraz and Vila, the hardest obstacle for them was similar to many others affected: saying goodbye to most, if not all, of their valuables, which in some cases included pets.
“The fact that a cigarette just destroyed so many people’s lives [gives] me a breakdown,” Mudd said.
Since March 28, the Harrisonburg community has rallied around those affected. Through clubs organizing fundraisers and the GoFundMe page, the community has shown its continual support of the residents of 1083.
“Words can’t even express how grateful I am for the people in this community because it’s like, ‘Dang, people really care like that.’ It’s like, they’ve never even met me or met any of us, but they’re still donating,” Suraz said. “That just means a lot.”