A pre-dawn blaze roared through a Willow Glen apartment complex in San Jose on Wednesday morning, sending frantic tenants and their children scrambling, screaming and knocking on every door as they fled to warn others to get out.
Firefighters were called to the Glen Willow Apartments at 877 Willow St. at 5:09 a.m. and continued to evacuate the 84-unit-building, as several shoeless children and others in pajamas stood outside in the rain.
Three residents, including an unidentified man with third-degree burns on his hands and face, were taken to Valley Medical Center for treatment. Their conditions were not known late Wednesday.
A few blocks away, officials set up cots at Willow Glen Middle School for the estimated 243 residents displaced by the fire. Yolanda Foster's family was among those in need of help.
Foster, 29, said she stood frozen, clutching her three small children and watched their apartment disappear behind a cloud of black smoke and fire. After spending a few years homeless in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, she said the Willow Glen apartment was her family's first real home.
Foster's two youngest daughters, 1-year-old Stormy Hart and 2-year-old Summer Hart, were both born in homeless shelters, she said. And her oldest son, Savan Reyes, 7, remembers walking past drug users on L.A.'s Skid Row. He was so ecstatic, she said, when they came to San Jose to start over. They moved into a one-bedroom apartment in October.
''My son made me promise we would not go back to a shelter,'' said Foster, who is eight months pregnant. ''This morning, he saw the fire. He said to me, 'Mom, where are we going to live now?' ''
Edna Jackson was still awake watching Court Television's ''Forensic Files,'' when she heard someone yelling outside her apartment on the first floor.
''This woman was running down the hallway, screaming, 'Call 911, the building's on fire!' '' said Jackson, 29, who admitted she was skeptical at first when she didn't see any smoke outside her door. ''Then I peeked out the window. The third-story apartment was completely engulfed.''
Jackson grabbed her jacket and ran up a narrow stairwell to warn her cousins upstairs. The third floor was blanketed in black smoke, she said.
''I couldn't see; I couldn't breathe,'' Jackson said. ''I just started banging on the doors, 'Wake up! Wake up!' ''
Jackson managed to rouse Joseph Smith, a few doors down from where the fire was believed to have originated, and Shawnte Harris, across the way, and Darrin Stone. Stone later ran back into the building and began kicking Foster's front door to wake her, as smoke began to filter into her apartment.
Several tenants, hastily dressed in donated sweatshirts and pants at a temporary evacuation shelter at the Baha'i Center, said they didn't hear any smoke alarms sound in the 42-year-old building.
''I'm not sure they worked,'' San Jose fire Battalion Chief Jim Carter said of the smoke detectors in the complex.
Carter said fire crews encountered a ''solid wall of flames'' on the third-story of the complex, which he described as having an H-shaped floor plan. Firefighters, he said, quickly worked to break through part of the ceiling to create a ventilation hole where flames could escape.
The six-alarm fire caused an estimated $4 million to $5 million in damage, and the entire 84-unit complex will be uninhabitable for some time to come, fire officials said.
The fire was declared under control at around 10:15 a.m. Seventy-five San Jose firefighters and 15 Santa Clara city firefighters battled the blaze.
A cause was not known, as arson investigators remained on scene through the evening. Battalion Chief Karen Allyn said authorities with the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and San Jose police were not called to the scene.
Property assessors representing the apartment owners declined to comment.
The Red Cross arranged with restaurants to send warm meals out to the shelter, where 143 people were registered, said Cynthia Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the organization.