Families displaced by four-alarm fire in Odenton complex search for answers

March 22, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Bewildered and a bit shell-shocked, the fire victims gathered yesterday to begin sorting out their lives.

It wasn't supposed to happen to them. Not in a luxury apartment complex that was only about 18 months old and not in one that charged rents as high as $975 a month -- not including utilities -- for two bedrooms and a loft.

And most certainly not in such a quiet subdivision as Seven Oaks in Odenton and on a street named Peaceful Way.

But yesterday the 27 families displaced by a four-alarm fire that tore through two adjoining buildings in Cambridge Commons Apartments on Friday afternoon could only search for answers. Questions that had nagged them all night came flooding out.

Was their anything left of their homes? Where would they live? When would they be allowed to re-enter their apartments and assess the damage?

"The worst part is not knowing if you have a place to live," said Cynthia Gomez, who moved to the complex from Hawaii in the fall of 1990 with her husband and teen-age son. "You see this kind of thing on television, and you really don't think it can happen to you."

The blaze started in the afternoon, apparently after a 7-year-old boy home alone with his 4-year-old brother inserted a piece of paper or fabric softener sheet into a gas fireplace, said Capt. J. Gary Sheckells, an Anne Arundel County Fire Department spokesman.

The lighted material was either blown or accidentally thrown onto the sofa, and the fire quickly engulfed one side of the apartment, he said.

Army Pfc. Brittain Spencer, a mail clerk at nearby Fort George G. Meade, was working on his car in the parking lot when he heard the boy scream. At first he thought a child had fallen off a bike, but when he heard the scream again he looked up to see flames leaping from the balcony.

"I ran over there to the bottom floor, set the alarm off, knocked out the glass of the fire extinguisher and had another guy knock on doors to get people out," said Private Spencer, 24. "I remember screaming for people to get out."

Private Spencer said he climbed the stairs to the third floor and kicked down a locked door to get to the boys, who apparently had already been helped by a neighbor.

Walter Perry, a director of a drug treatment program, and his 11-year-old daughter were two of the people he notified in time. Neither had realized their building was on fire, and they had to crawl on their hands and knees to avoid the billowing clouds of thick black smoke outside their third-floor door.

"It was frightening," Mr. Perry said. "I'd never been in something that was life-threatening before."

Firefighters responded to an emergency call from the apartment complex at 4:27 p.m. It took 70 firefighters and 26 pieces of equipment to bring the blaze under control at 5:50 p.m.

Damage was estimated at more than $250,000 with at least seven units destroyed by fire and seven others damaged by heat, smoke or water. No one was injured except for the 7-year-old, who suffered minor burns to his fingers, Captain Sheckells said.

Yesterday morning, many of the approximately 50 people left homeless by the fire returned to the apartment complex's clubhouse, which has been temporarily converted to a disaster assistance center by American Red Cross volunteers.

Seven families were put up overnight in a nearby motel by the Red Cross, while others were moved to vacant apartments in the complex or stayed with relatives and friends.

Karl Krueger, his wife, Rebecca, and 4-year-old child, Justin, stayed with Mr. Krueger's mother in Bowie. They said they are grateful that their son seems unaffected by events.

"He doesn't understand what's happening at all," Mr. Krueger said. "We rented 'Backdraft' a couple of nights ago. He said it was just like the movie."

Mr. Krueger and other fire victims said they are thankful to the Red Cross for providing quick assistance, including shelter, food and clothing.

One of the buildings vacated during the fire, 2110, was undamaged and will reopen today. In another, 2108, families living in the odd-numbered apartments will be given limited access to their units. In a third, 2106, the development's property manager will be given an opportunity to retrieve possessions for tenants.

"I think people are holding on. The stiff upper lip is taking hold," said Kay Hunley, director of emergency services for the Red Cross Central Maryland chapter.

Red Cross officials said anyone wishing to contribute money to the fire relief effort should make checks payable to the American Red Cross, 4700 Mount Hope Drive, Baltimore 21215. Donations of clothing and household items may be dropped off at Odenton Elementary School today between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

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