6. Shocking, fiery collapse

Four firefighters stood trapped on a fourth-floor balcony of the Water's Edge condo construction site, as flames engulfed the entire building

The fire began on the morning of July 8. A construction worker had been applying decking material with a torch, when the flames got away from him, running up the side of the building.

Flames tore through the partially complete building, and it collapsed into a pile of smoking rubble in less than two hours.

Chris Zimmermann led his crew of firefighters into the structure after an initial attack from the outside. But conditions changed dramatically, dropping heavy smoke onto them.

Searching for a way out, he explored a stairwell and saw smoke below him, being sucked farther down.

“I've been a firefighter for 18 years, and I've never seen anything that,” Zimmermann said. “It gives you a kind of gut-wrenching feeling, thinking, 'how did it get underneath us?'”

As he prepared to put out a mayday call, an explosion struck.

“I went up flying into the air, and I think I hit the roof as I went up, and it drove me back down on the stairs,” he said. “I kind of thought I was finished at that point.

“Everything just went orange at that point, everything was on fire, my gear was on fire, and I just got up and hauled as fast as I could.”

Zimmermann managed to return to his group, and the four blindly felt their way along, finding a window and stepping out onto the balcony.

The men were now trapped four storeys up. The ground crews' ladder could only reach three floors, but they scrambled onto the roof of parking garage to reach the men above.

“(The ladder) was basically one rung over the deck, it just, just made it,” he said. “It was pretty lucky actually.”

Fifteen minutes later the entire building collapsed.

The fire also impacted the adjacent Water's Edge South building, displacing 130 people, along with the Walnut Grove Motel.

Zimmermann suffered second-degree burns on his legs, back, ear and hands in the spectacular blaze. He says a full recovery may take another six months to a year. 

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