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‘A loud boom:’ Fire tears through 42-unit apartment building in Waukesha

Data pix.

Fire at Hillcrest Apartments in Waukesha

WAUKESHA -- A massive fire at the Hillcrest Apartments on Shepherd Court in Waukesha overnight Thursday, Sept. 12 was believed to have been sparked by a lightning strike. Roughly 100 people were left homeless as a result.

At approximately 11:30 p.m., the City of Waukesha Police and Fire Dispatch Center received reports of a structure fire on E. Main Street. Residents reported that lightning struck the building, or in the area of their building, and caused the fire alarms to activate.

"It was a loud boom. It sounded like a bomb really. It even shook the apartment over here. After that, I'd say within five minutes, [I] heard sirens so I came outside and just saw smoke and everything. At first the flames weren't showing, then out of no where it erupted. It was crazy." said Neko Ebbott, lives nearby.

Waukesha apartment fire (Photo courtesy: Michelle Wachnaik)

Waukesha apartment fire

"I never would have thought lightning striking on our roof. Twelve hours later, we are sitting here homeless pretty much," said C.J. Wollenzien.

C.J. Wollenzien has lived at the Hillcrest Apartments for five years. He also does maintenance work for their property owner. Wollenzien said he saw the lightning hit the roof as he was driving home from work.

Fire at Hillcrest Apartments in Waukesha

Fire at Hillcrest Apartments in Waukesha

"I just pretty much started banging on doors. I had my keys out and opening doors right away. Saying 'get outside, get downstairs as quick as possible,'" said Wollenzien.

Firefighters say they were initially called to a building across the street. Fire alarms were blaring which caused some confusion about where the blaze started. Witnesses believe the flames festered in the attic for several minutes before shooting up toward the sky.

"Obviously, the building is very unsafe right now. We have the flare-ups that are occurring and there are a lot of materials overhead that can drop on them," said Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Hoffman, with the City of Waukesha Fire Department.

Fire at Hillcrest Apartments in Waukesha

Officials say one person had to be rescued from the third floor. A firefighter was injured and one resident was taken to the hospital.

SKYFOX captured whole sections of the roof seemingly ripped off.

Residents were left back in for a few minutes on Friday, Sept. 13 to collect valuables.

Investigators remain hopeful a good portion of the 42-unit building is salvageable.

Fire at Hillcrest Apartments in Waukesha

Fire at Hillcrest Apartments in Waukesha

"I cannot think of the last time in Waukesha that we've had a fire related -- especially a catastrophic loss like this -- caused by a lightning strike," said Hoffman.

Investigators say alarms and sprinklers were working. The property has not been turned over the the owner's restoration company. They will be responsible for letting residents in to collect more of their belongings.

Fire at Hillcrest Apartments in Waukesha

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