Monday was supposed to be a good 15th birthday for Shonte Clements, but instead of finding presents in her family's Mint Hill apartment, she found a fire sparking in her brother's vacant bedroom.
The fire quickly spread from her family's second-story apartment across the Stoney Pointe Apartments.
About 45 firefighters responded to the two-alarm blaze and had to rescue a couple and their infant daughter who were trapped on a third floor balcony. By the end, Charlotte fire authorities said the two-alarm blaze had displaced about 35 people, caused about $500,000 in damage and killed a pet dog.
The fire broke out shortly before 8 a.m. It remains unclear exactly how it started.
But Shonte called her mother, Nancy Clements, at work saying she'd been asleep when she first smelled smoke. She told her mother she found sparks coming from near her brother's radio in his bedroom.
The mother got into her car and raced home. There she saw what had become a full-fledged fire engulfing the apartment complex.
"Oh my god, the flames! I have never seen anything like it. The flames, the fire, the smoke," Clements said. "I parked my car and ran to find my baby."
Meanwhile, the fire trapped one unidentified family in their third-floor apartment. The mother had tried to escape with her infant daughter out the front, said Charlotte Fire Capt. Billy Ellison, but flames and smoke blocked her way.
Instead the family moved to the balcony and began calling for help. The firefighters of Charlotte's Station 29 extended a 105-foot aerial ladder about 50 feet up to the family, Ellison said.
Jody Henson, a Charlotte firefighter, climbed the ladder to reach the family, with Ellison close behind. The woman passed the baby to the firefighters, and Ellison said he carried the child down to safety. Her parents followed suit.
The child and her parents were treated for smoke inhalation, he said, but are expected to be fine.
Everyone else managed to escape the fire relatively unharmed, said Charlotte Fire Capt. Rob Brisley, except for a dog in a third-floor apartment that died.
The American Red Cross is assisting the displaced families, Brisley said.
Nancy Clements said she's thankful her family is safe. But she's worried about the future. Her daughter, who was supposed to have a trove of birthday presents waiting for her, only has the nightgown and slippers she had been wearing.
The family doesn't have renters' insurance, Clements said, because her insurance company denied it. And their home is destroyed.
"It's gone. Everything is gone," she said. "All you see is sky."