NORWICH, Conn. (AP) – A fast-moving fire destroyed most of a large apartment complex in eastern Connecticut early Saturday and prompted a search for dozens of missing people, but authorities had located nearly all the residents by the evening.

All but one of the estimated 150 residents of the Peachtree Garden Apartments were accounted for, said Norwich Fire Battalion Chief Tracy Montoya. The remaining person’s name was not released, but police told WTNH-TV that officials believed that resident had moved out some time ago.

Montoya and other officials said it was remarkable that no one appeared to have died in the blaze. The cause remained under investigation by local, state and federal authorities.

The fire was reported at about 1:30 a.m. at the Westledge Drive complex, which had a common roof connecting 12 buildings that housed 120 units. Parts were still smoldering Saturday night.

Officials said all but about eight apartments were destroyed. All that remained in some parts of the complex were three-story brick walls, standing next to piles of black, smokey rubble.

Residents, former tenants and neighbors stood in amazement, staring at the destruction Saturday. Many remarked that the scene resembled a bombing.

Mohammad Sundal, 43, was spending his first night in his one-bedroom apartment when he awoke to the smell of smoke. His living room was already on fire, he said.

“It was so intense, the fire,” Sundal said. “If I stayed for two more minutes, trust me, it was going to burn me.”

Authorities said firefighters and police officers rushed door to door alerting people and helping them get out.

“It was just a tremendous team effort,” said City Manager Alan Bergren. “I’m very proud of our response.”

Seventeen fire departments responded to the blaze.

The location of many residents was uncertain Saturday morning. Fire Chief Ken Scandariato said early in the day that 45 residents were missing. Officials worked with apartment management, interviewed tenants and checked registrations of parked cars in an effort to find those who were unaccounted for.

Mayor Benjamin Lathrop said it was a major undertaking determining who was at the apartment complex at the time of the fire and where they were.

“It is a miracle,” Lathrop said, referring to how everyone apparently escaped. “Just the way the fire spread is mind-boggling.”

The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the nearby Uncas Elementary School and said it was helping 114 residents of the complex. Red Cross officials expected to meet with more residents on Sunday.

Two buildings were fully engulfed by flames by the time firefighters arrived and tenants were calling for help, Scandariato said.

“Some people got out with just what they were wearing in bed” he said. “It was that quick for us.”

The fire chief said the wreckage was still too hot to allow the use of arson dogs or cadaver dogs, and officials expected to be at the scene until at least Sunday afternoon.

Sue Rochester-Bolen of the local chapter of the Red Cross said her agency opened cases for 77 families, including 111 adults and three children, and handed out about $22,000 in aid.

She believed some people had not yet contacted the Red Cross, and she urged them to do so Sunday at the shelter at Uncas Elementary School. A handful of people were at the shelter late Saturday afternoon. Others were staying with friends, relatives or in hotels.

“This is by far and away the most devastating disaster we’ve had in southeastern Connecticut,” Rochester-Bolen said. “These people have nothing left. They truly have nothing.”

About 40 Red Cross volunteers were helping residents with temporary housing, food, clothing and any mental health support they needed.

City of Norwich social workers and staff from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services were also at the scene.

Fire alarms were working but the complex didn’t have a sprinkler system because that wasn’t required when it was built in 1976. The entire structure was engulfed in flames within minutes.

“It got ahead of us,” Scandariato said. “It was just too much fire to mount an attack to stop it.”

Tenant Beverly Creed and her son, Travis, 17, were awakened by a downstairs neighbor. The complex’s courtyard was already on fire as they ran to safety.

“It was scary,” she said. “I just grabbed my purse and pair of sandals to put on.”

Another tenant, Carol Rice, said she heard an explosion. “Then I opened my glass sliding door and the flames were just flying everywhere,” she said. She escaped wearing a bathrobe and slippers.

“Oh, my God. I’m a total wreck,” she said, sobbing. “My pills, all my medications are burnt.”

The local health district was helping people refill their prescriptions.

Officials didn’t know yet if the fire started inside or outside the complex. The local and state fire marshals’ offices were investigating.

The Red Cross is seeking monetary donations to help with the fire victims.

Norwich is about 40 miles east of Hartford.


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