Eight Anne Arundel County families were forced from their homes before dawn Christmas morning as a four-alarm fire tore through their Glen Burnie apartment building, fire officials reported.
A few residents of the three-story, garden-style building in the Woodside Apartments complex managed to grab Christmas gifts, but others barely had time to throw on clothes and run outside, where they stood and watched their holiday plans go up in flames.
The 3:30 a.m. blaze destroyed the top floor of the building at 7836 Woodside Terrace and burned the roof off the structure, but no injuries were reported.
"The best Christmas gift we have is that we're all safe," said Doug Margush, who lives on the ground floor of the building with Jill Nealon and her three children.
Mr. Margush said he had returned from Pennsylvania, where he was visiting his mother, at 3 a.m. A half hour later, he heard a sound like hail against the window, looked out, and saw an orange glow coming from the floors above. He realized that the sound was not hail, but ash falling from the third floor.
Ms. Nealon called 911 while Mr. Margush went to wake neighbors. The children grabbed bags full of gifts and ran.
Charles Singer, who lives on the first floor, said he was awakened by someone pounding on his door about 3:30. He didn't know who it was, and he didn't ask. He and his pregnant wife, Tammy, took their 16-month-old son Benjamin and fled the burning building.
"We were fortunate we just had water damage," Mr. Singer said. They had planned to spend the day visiting relatives, he said. Instead, they spent it clearing their apartment and moving to a new place at the Woodside complex.
Capt. Gary Sheckells, a county Fire Department spokesman, said the first fire company arrived at 3:45 a.m. to find heavy smoke and fire coming from the top floor.
Though some residents had already fled, firefighters had to break into apartments to rouse others from sleep, the spokesman said.
A fourth alarm was eventually called at 4:31 a.m., and 91 firefighters and 26 pieces of equipment eventually were dispatched. At 5:24 a.m., the blaze was finally declared under control, but firefighters remained at the apartment until late morning.
Captain Sheckells said investigators have determined that the fire began in a top-floor apartment, but as of yesterday afternoon, the cause remained a mystery. Investigators do not believe the blaze to be suspicious in origin.
A preliminary estimate put the damage to the building and contents at $1.25 million.
Eight of the 12 apartments in the building were occupied at the time of the fire, according to Jon Baugus of Odenton, a Red Cross volunteer coordinator at the scene. Mr. Baugus said 24 people were forced out of their homes.
Some of those residents will stay with relatives temporarily; others went to local inns.
The managers of the apartment complex moved quickly to find new homes for the victims, Mr. Baugus said. Within hours of the fire, many victims were already in the process of moving into other buildings.
Late yesterday morning, displaced families and their neighbors carried clothing and furnishings out of the building. The grass yards in front and back of the building were littered with charred timbers, chimney pipes, blackened furniture and stuffed animals. A plastic Santa lay face down on a pile of rubble, while a Frosty the Snowman smiled from the patio of a gutted apartment.
"We were going to celebrate Christmas, but it's hard to do with something like this," said Theresa Jones, who lives next to the fire-damaged building. "I mean, some of these children don't have any presents."
Annette Mooney, a Red Cross volunteer, said that several people had called to ask if they might donate toys, and that she was taking donations at her home because the Red Cross office was not open on the holiday. The Fire Department is also gathering toys for the children, she said.
"Some of them didn't get out with anything," said Ms. Jones. "They got out with themselves."