ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – A fire that erupted at the Country Club Villas condominium complex near East Florida Avenue and South Parker Road left nearly 20 people injured and dozens more displaced Thursday after they were forced to jump to safety.

Around 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Cunningham Fire District says it received reports of people trapped on the third floor, hanging out windows. When firefighters arrived at the complex, they found people yelling for help.

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

“They were hanging out their windows,” said Acting Lt. Dan Montez, the first Cunningham Fire District lieutenant to reach the scene. “It’s unsettling; you’ve got other people’s lives on the line.”

Some chose to jump one or two stories down to the ground because heavy smoke prevented them from escaping through hallways.

The fire began in a unit on the complex’s first floor, according to Cunningham Fire Chief Jerry Rhodes. As of Thursday morning, it was not yet clear what started the fire. Some residents say they heard a loud noise or explosion but firefighters were unable to immediately verify where the noise came from. When the fire spread, some residents say there was no choice but to jump.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but the flames are coming through the door … your only choice is to jump,” said one woman.

“It was scary and it did hurt,” said Elizabeth Ortiz, who jumped from her unit’s window along with her father and other family members.

Other people waited for fire ladder crews to rescue them. In all, Rhodes said more than 150 people were evacuated from four buildings on the complex.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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Seventeen people were injured, sustaining traumatic injuries from jumping out windows and suffering smoke inhalation, according to Rhodes. Emergency responders transported at least eight people to area hospitals, Rhodes said, but he expects the number of injured may grow, as pain sets in from falls.

Among those people transported to hospitals was an Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputy, who Rhodes said upon arriving at the burning building, rushed inside without protective gear to rescue people and suffered smoke inhalation.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. There are no sprinklers in the building, which contributed to the fire’s ability to spread, firefighters said. Rhodes attributes the lack of sprinklers – which have now become a standard fire suppression system for apartment buildings – to this building’s age. The complex was likely built in the 1970s, at a time when sprinkler systems were not required. It has not undergone any major renovations that would have required owners bring the building up to meet new codes, Rhodes said.

Residents form a line to get into their building and retrieve belongings (credit: CBS)

Residents form a line to get into their building and retrieve belongings (credit: CBS)

A similar fire occurred 15 – 20 years ago that had the same impact, displacing people because the blaze was so severe.

The Red Cross provided shelter at the Potter’s House Church for the residents evacuated from the building. Red Cross estimates more than 100 people were temporarily displaced by the fire, and around 25 spent the night at the shelter.

Residents began lining up at their apartment building Thursday morning to retrieve belongings from their damaged homes. Firefighters escorted people in individually, but around 9 a.m. asbestos concerns forced them to condemn the building and stop letting people inside. In an effort to help the displaced folks as much as possible, firefighters in protective masks and full gear began taking lists and going back inside damaged units for essentials, like medications.

Of the more than 100 people evacuated overnight, 14 are students at Village East elementary school, said Principal John Cramer. He turned up at the complex Thursday morning to see how he could help and assess what those students and their families need, whether it be food, clothing, and other supplies.

Residents of all but one of the complex’s wings, where the fire broke out, can return to their homes Thursday. About 50 people who live in the fire building are displaced, until tests can be performed to determine whether asbestos is present and major repairs can be made. Arapahoe County building inspectors will also need to check the structure. Rhodes expects all of that could take weeks, not days. Rhodes says the department feels blessed no lives were lost in the fire and rescues that followed.

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Lauren DiSpirito is CBS4’s Northern Newsroom reporter. Follow her on Twitter @CBS4Lauren. Share your story ideas with her here.