Featured photo: Fire engines surround Crystal Towers in an effort to put out a fourth floor fire. (photo by Gale Melcher)

On Tuesday afternoon, Crystal Towers, downtown Winston-Salem’s 11-story high-rise for low-income elderly and disabled residents, caught fire.

According to Battalion Chief Joe Ramsey with the Winston-Salem Fire Department, the fire was contained to an apartment on the fourth floor. The whole fourth floor and fifth floor were affected by smoke, but as of 3:30 p.m. there were no fatalities or injuries, Ramsey said. The fire has since been put out.

“They’re working to evacuate that at this time,” he said.

The 1972 building has 201 units and currently houses 196 residents.

By 3:30 in the afternoon, the building had not yet completely been evacuated.

“It’s an interesting situation with high-rise fires because you just can’t evacuate people out, you have to sort of shelter-in-place,” Ramsey said.

The building does not have a sprinkler system, but Ramsey said that they were able to connect their hoses to the standpipe.

“It’s like a pipe in the building that allows for us to go to any floor,” he said.

The fire started around 2 p.m. according to resident and city council hopeful Michael Douglas.

“It’s crispy up there,” Douglas said.

Douglas was in the shower when he found out about the fire.

“The maintenance knocked on the door and got me to come out,” he said. 

The alarm was going off, but Douglas asserts that the alarm goes off all the time. 

“It’s the same alarm that’s always on, we didn’t know if it was real or not,” he said.

One of Douglas’ friends is bedridden. 

“They went in and checked on him, but they didn’t get him out,” Douglas said.

People were stuck in the elevator shaft “banging on stuff” when Douglas was leaving the building, he said.

“This is exactly, exactly what we’ve been afraid of,” he added.

WSFD works to put out the fire on Crystal Towers’ fourth floor. (photo by Gale Melcher)

In April, Douglas and his friend Deborah Watkins spoke to TCB regarding safety concerns about the building. Watkins is wheelchair-bound.

“She can’t go up and down no steps,” Douglas said last year.

“If a fire catches in here, are you going to expect me to jump out the back? You crazy,” Watkins had said at the time.

Resident Samuel Grier lives on the 11th floor and was able to come out after the fire was put out. “One of the maintenance men advised me to get on the balcony,” Grier said.

Grier said that he could smell the smoke when he came down the elevator.

For years, residents and local activists have been concerned about Crystal Towers’ aging infrastructure and how it affects the building’s disabled and elderly population. While both elevators — which are often broken-down — are in the process of being repaired and replaced, the building’s problems with accessibility haunts residents and, in the case of a fire, could pose a threat to their safety.

One woman who spoke to TCB said that she just hoped her friend who lives on the fourth floor is safe.

Another resident said, “I’m getting ready to move. I keep putting it off, putting it off, putting it off.”

Read more reporting on Crystal Towers here.

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