Firefighters found a man dead Sunday night in the back of his room at the Courtesy Motel on 15th Street after they extinguished a fire.
The name of the victim was not released, pending notification of next of kin, but Deputy Coroner Johnny McDonald said the victim appeared to be about 42 years old.
McDonald said a cause of death will not be determined until an autopsy is completed, likely on Monday.
“It’s not always what you think it is,” McDonald said. “You think ‘Oh, he burned to death.’ But it’s not always that way … Somebody could have done something to him. We don’t know.”
Augusta Fire Chief Chris James said the cause of the fire, which started about 6:13 p.m., was still being determined.
The motel’s 23 residents rushed out their rooms, some carrying possessions in garbage bags and backpacks. Courtesy Motel manager Nand Verma said he was moving the residents to the Quality Inn across the street at no charge for Sunday night and would allow them to return Monday morning.
Karla Lawrence, 25, who is about eight months pregnant, was watching a movie on Lifetime with her boyfriend, Julius Imperati Jr., when she heard a low hum that she thought was a siren in the distance.
Imperati went out to check out the noise, which he said turned out to be a smoke alarm, and saw flames in the first-floor room next door.
In his bare feet and no shirt, Imperati said, he ran to the motel office a few doors down for help and asked Lawrence to get as much of their belongings as she could.
“The only thing I could think about was the baby in my belly so I slipped on whatever shoes I could find, and I just grabbed my photo album,” Lawrence said, pointing to ultrasound photos inside.
The couple began yelling “fire” to alert other residents as fire trucks pulled in. Augusta Fire Department interim shift commander Richard Burts said it took about three minutes to extinguish the fire once the four engines and two ladder trucks arrived.
Vonda Knight was sleeping in the room directly above the fire. Her boyfriend woke her up and told her to get out of the room, where she pays $34 a night to stay.
“I thought it was a joke,” Knight said. “Smoke just started coming up at us.”
Knight said her smoke alarm was detached and in a desk drawer, but Verma said all the room’s detectors were working properly.
James said investigators will continue to collect evidence to determine the cause of the fire and the circumstances.
“As far as what and why, (the investigator) is still working to determine that,” he said.