apartment building fire 20140219

Flames can be seen shooting from a window at an apartment building on Shaw Street in St. John's Wednesday afternoon. (CBC)

A fire at a seniors complex in St. John's Wednesday afternoon forced the evacuation of more than 170 elderly residents.

Five people were sent to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.

The first call came in shortly after 4:15 p.m. with reports of smoke on the third floor of Maplewood Place on Shaw Street.

Flames could also be seen shooting from the rear of the four-storey complex.

Resident Jack King was in building when the fire broke out.

"I don't know ... we were having supper and then the fire alarm went off and the next thing the whole building filled with smoke, and I mean bad smoke," King told CBC News.

CBC reporter Amy Stoodley said it was difficult to see the building through the smoke and snow, but added she could hear glass breaking.

Those who didn't require hospitalization were escorted to buses and taken to St. John's City Hall as a temporary measure.

Firefighters also had to contend with heavy snow which began falling around the same time the fire broke out.

There's no word yet on what might have started the blaze.