Leaping flames on Thursday morning devoured a tool collection in southern Gaston County that Harmon Treadaway Jr. had spent 35 years amassing.
Neighbors started calling 911 when the fire triggered explosions of several propane cylinders tucked away in his outbuilding.
"I thought it was somebody setting off fireworks," said neighbor Ashlee Lee, 34.
Five fire departments responded around 11 a.m., along with several ambulances, although no one was injured. Jeremy Rikard, chief of the Union Road Volunteer Fire Department, said conditions were dangerous for firefighters, given the explosions and hot weather.
It's unclear how the fire started, and it will take about a week for investigators to find answers, said Aaron Goforth, Gaston County's deputy fire marshal.
Chance Pepper, 8, was one of the first to see the fire, on his way up from a bounce on a trampoline across the street from 2324 Woodbridge Drive.
He alerted two nearby friends.
"I said, `Follow me,' and they wouldn't listen," Chance said. "They ran only halfway, and I ran to my house."
"He comes screaming, `Fire! Fire! Fire!' " said his mother, Denise Flar, 40, who had been wondering why she kept hearing something that sounded like gunshots. "We didn't know what was going on."
Around that time, Treadaway, 64, was headed home after making a bank deposit. He had left his house the day before, spending the night at his girlfriend's house in Dallas.
"I saw smoke on Union Road, and I said, `That looks like it might be my house,' " he said.
When he arrived, his house was untouched, but about two-thirds of his outbuilding was already charred. He estimates the fire caused about $25,000 in damages, destroying countless air compressors, wrenches and screwdrivers.
"That building had been there 28 years," he said, staring at the skeletal remains. "I had personal stuff there. Nothing can be saved. Trash is all that's left."