RIVERVIEW — George Cribbs was sitting on the couch in his third-floor Allegro Palm apartment Wednesday night talking on his phone when he heard it: A loud cracking bang ripped through his living room.
At first, he wasn’t concerned.
"We live in Florida," he said. "We hear lightning all the time."
But minutes later, his neighbors pounded on his door. The next thing he knew, the 56-year-old man was fleeing the apartment he shared with his family for eight years, carrying only the phone and keys in his pockets.
As he headed for the stairs he could see the building next door smoldering. Melting ceiling tiles reminded him of lava.
The fire that burned for more than an hour destroyed 24 units and displaced as many as 100 people, according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. No one was injured. Fire officials are investigating but think lighting ignited the blaze.
"We were scared but also so lucky," said resident Mary Abraham, 43.
She, too, heard the roar of thunder. When she began to smell smoke and see the red and orange flames engulf the buildings near hers, she knew it was time to pack her two sons, sister, niece, nephew and 5-year-old Shih Tzu, Brooklyn, and get out.
She returned at 10:30 p.m. to an apartment that was undamaged.
Cribbs wasn’t so lucky. He stayed for hours to watch the firefighters battle the flames that were engulfing his home.
"I’m just standing there watching my life go up in flames," he said.
He saw the third floor of his building collapse to the first floor, swallowing his family’s belongings — the wedding ring that was in the top dresser drawer, his fishing supplies and photos of his wife’s late mother.
Allegro Palm apartments in Riverview is a serene, gated community with one- to four-bedroom options in its 32 buildings. A manager declined to comment and multiple calls to the leasing office were not returned.
On Thursday morning, half a dozen residents milled around outside the burned units. An aerial view shows dozens of blackened apartments without a roof.
On the ground, yellow tape marked off the building as a restricted area, the still-standing walls providing a shell around the internal wreckage.
With parts of the roof gone, sunlight illuminated the collapsed debris on the ground level of Cribbs’ building. A white appliance that appeared to be an oven sat upside down atop the pile of broken wood and belongings.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue first responded at 7:41 p.m. Wednesday at the apartments on Legacy Crescent Place, and crews immediately noticed flames penetrating the roof.
The fire was under control before 9 p.m., but 24 apartments were damaged, officials said.
Although two lightning strikes were reported in the area prior to the fire, investigators also want to rule out other causes.
Hillsborough County’s Office of Emergency Management and the American Red Cross of Central Florida found shelter for at about 40 adults, 33 children and four animals. Others made their own arrangements.
From the clubhouse, the Red Cross also provided water, blankets, personal-care items, emotional support and plush Mickey Mouse toys for the children.
"In addition to making sure they have the resources to get them through the night, we have caseworkers that will help them get back on their feet," said Rachel Nelson, regional director of communications for Red Cross. "More often than not, the hardest part is dealing with what happens after the disaster."
Cribbs’ wife is traveling in Paris, and he hesitated to tell her about the fire because he did not want to concern her while she was on vacation. He is staying at a friend’s house temporarily, and when his wife returns, he said they will figure out their long-term plans.
"My mind is like in a fog," he said Thursday morning, pointing to where his apartment was and the stairs he used to exit. "It hasn’t set in yet."
Marie Lindke, who lives across a pond from the burned buildings, stood with other residents Thursday morning as they discussed ways to help the neighbors who had been displaced.
"Our heart breaks for them," she said. "We’re a little community here."
Senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Bre Bradham at email@example.com and Tim Fanning at firstname.lastname@example.org.