Ken Kalthoff, NBC 5 News
The fire at the Oakwood Terrace Apartments Thursday has brought the community closer together as police search for an arsonist.
Investigators say they have a suspect who may have been behind Thursday's fire that left dozens homeless in Everman.
Everman Police Chief and Director of Emergency Services Randy Sanders confirmed the fire was the work of an arsonist on Thursday.
On Friday, police were working to get arrest warrants signed for the suspected arsonist. Police said they are looking for a former resident that some witnesses recognized as the person seen setting the fire and escaping on Thursday.
While police have not released the suspect's name or provided a description of the man, though they have said that he was arrested for arson six years ago after being accused of setting fire to a home across the street from the apartment building that was set on fire Thursday.
Police said the man was a former resident of the community and was seen on surveillance video entering the complex and running away a short time after the fire began. Police said he then went to a nearby gas station where he told a customer he needed a ride and had to get out of town quickly.
Witnesses said they saw the man light the fire and run away.
Residents have heard a name connected to the suspect and have a message for him.
"You turn yourself in, you ruined a lot of people’s lives," said Rodney Homer, who lost everything but the clothes on his back. "Lot of people don’t like it."
City Official Defends Volunteer Fire Department
Randy Sanders, Director of Emergency Services for the city of Everman, said the first engine from the volunteer company arrived at the fire within 10 minutes of being called, however, a valve malfunction in the truck only allowed firefighters to battle the fire for about three minutes.
Sanders said that truck then left and was replaced by additional engines that arrived between 12 and 15 minutes later.
Sanders initially said it appeared the engine's water tank had been emptied, leading officials to believe that the tank had not been filled after its last use. An investigation revealed that a valve had failed, leading to the malfunction.
Everman PS Director says pumper truck was not half empty at fire. A valve malfunctioned. Truck under repair now. @nbcdfw
— Ken Kalthoff (@KenKalthoffNBC5) January 3, 2014
"Instead of ragging on our fire department, we'd really want people to respond by volunteering. We are constantly asking for volunteers. We need more volunteers. And we did a tremendous job yesterday," Sanders said.
Residents Escape From Destructive Blaze
The American Red Cross said more than 60 people were displaced by the fire after 24 residences were destroyed by the fire.
Residents said many of those who lived on the second floor and had to jump from windows to escape the building. Tony Patterson did so and then he had to catch his mother.
"I already jumped out the window, so I could go catch her," Patterson said. "I was trying to catch her, she didn't want to jump with no clothes on at all. I said, 'Jump Momma, you got do this. I ain't gonna hurt you. I ain't gonna let you fall.' And I caught her ."
Carolyn Roney could only wipe away tears as she and other residents watched their homes burn.
Roney said she was focused on getting her 83-year-old mother to safety. The thick, black smoke made getting to door a difficult -- nearly deadly -- challenge.
"I finally got my Momma a jacket and I tried to run back [to my bedroom] but I couldn't even find my jacket or my shoes. So I just ran outside in my pajamas," Roney said, choking back tears. "This is all I have."
"She lost everything. All the Christmas stuff she got for her kid, her grandkid. Just everything she had. Everything is gone," said Roney's brother, Rocky.
Rocky lives nearby and rushed over to bring his sister a coat.
"You can see her apartment there, burning. You can't see nothing but smoke," he said.
Most of the displaced residents escaped the building only to be stranded in the freezing cold wearing nothing but pajamas. Red Cross workers said they are distributing needed items like new shoes, socks and warm clothes to those affected at the Everman Community Center at 212 Race Street.
The shelter was moved to the Highland Hills Community Center in Fort Worth which could house the larger numbers and offered showers. The Red Cross asks anyone interesting in helping the victims to donate cash.
On Friday, donations were accepted on behalf of the victims at Bishop Elementary School. NBC 5's Ken Kalthoff tweeted (below) that the families will receive the donations on Saturday.
— Ken Kalthoff (@KenKalthoffNBC5) January 3, 2014
Two of the residents who escaped from the fire said they are lucky to be alive.
"I am blessed to be here," said Terry Pendergraph.
Pendergraphy, who is in a wheelchair, lives with Dora Burns. Neighbors banged on the door and said there was a fire.
"I grabbed Terry, the wheelchair, and myself and ran backwards down the stairs," said Burns.
While no one was seriously hurt, several people were taken to the hospital -- including several people who had to jump from the second floor.
Multiple NBC 5 reporters and editors contributed to this report.