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Jolted awake by the fire alarm, Mahesh Goswami opened his apartment curtains and found a wall of flames.

“It was coming from the upstairs down,” the 31-year-old recalled Wednesday morning, as he calmly watched firefighters douse the smoldering remains of his north Lincoln apartment building.

Goswami and his wife grabbed their son and daughter, ages 2 years and 7 months, and rushed outside as neighbors in Building 5027 of Black Sand Apartment Homes pounded on doors to make sure everyone escaped.

Lincoln fire investigators believe an improperly discarded cigarette is to blame for the blaze, which caused $2.5 million damage, displaced more than 50 people and ranks among the city's most significant residential fires in recent years.

The 30-unit building, near 33rd Street and Folkways Boulevard, is considered a total loss.

All residents escaped unharmed, but the fire caused an estimated $500,000 damage to their belongings.

"I don’t think I talked to one person who had renter’s insurance," said Lincoln Fire Investigator Rick Campos. He noted that such coverage costs about the same as a pizza per month.

The complex is owned by Edward Rose Development Co. of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. A local manager at the scene didn't comment.

Building alarms sounded at about 4:45 a.m., and fire crews had the blaze under control by about 6:15 a.m. The fire ripped through three-quarters of the building's attic and roof, above its sprinkler system, sending flames leaping into the morning sky.

Police and firefighters accounted for the residents with help from apartment management. And in the fire's first moments, tenants made sure everyone — pets included — made it outside safely.

“One gentleman told me, ‘I couldn’t get my wife out until she got her cat,’” Battalion Chief Leo Benes said.

His teams encountered heavy fire on their arrival and got a quick knockdown on the fire, but flames nonetheless swept quickly through the attic, stopping only when they hit a firewall on the western side.

"It got ahead of us," he said.

More than 50 firefighters and 18 fire rigs responded.

Eight apartments on the third floor were probably the most damaged by fire, Benes said. 

The massive firefight strained fire hydrants in the area as crews sprayed the blaze with several 1,000-gallon-a-minute hoses. And sprinklers inside the apartments ran for "quite a long time," so Campos believes the water damage is substantial.

He suspects a cigarette ignited the fire on a first- or second-floor balcony, and the flames spread from there.

Residents who scurried from their apartments kept warm in the complex's clubhouse, left the scene or hunkered down inside a StarTran bus that was provided as a temporary shelter.

Fire officials began letting some tenants inside to retrieve keys, wallets and cellphones around 8 a.m. By afternoon, complex management took over the scene and was to determine if and when tenants could continue retrieving their belongings.

“Many of those people were displaced at 5:30 in the morning with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, so no shoes, no socks, no coats,” Fire Chief Micheal Despain told reporters during a news conference. “A lot of people helped support those people who were displaced.”

Chelsea Fabrizius of the Kansas City area stood shivering outside the complex office just after 7:30 a.m. She stayed at Black Sand with a friend after the Snow Tha Product hip-hop show at the Bourbon Theatre the night before.

When the alarms sounded, she only had time to grab a letterman's jacket to slip over her nightgown. She had nothing for her feet.

But “a lovely” woman, who Fabrizius thought was married to an apartment complex manager, gave her fuzzy blue socks.

The woman passed out socks to many of the displaced tenants. There were even young men wearing pink socks with hearts on them, she said.

Fabrizius was grateful for the stranger’s kindness: “I just want some pants."

A friend who lives in a different building there gave Goswami a zip-up sweatshirt.

He doesn’t have renter’s insurance, he said, pointing at his apartment. The door to his first-level unit was charred, a window busted.

Goswami wondered aloud: “Is there anything left for me or not?”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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Reporter

Riley Johnson reports on breaking news and public safety issues in Lincoln and southeast Nebraska.

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