Apartment fire kills 2 men in building tornado spared

June 24, 1992|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

Arthur Stevenson recalled the frightening, ear-shattering roar of the tornado as it passed over his Chartley Park apartment building two years ago. He was lucky that time. The tornado bounced over his building, leaving it unscathed.

Early yesterday morning, a fire at the building that fate had saved from the tornado killed two people and destroyed or damaged six apartments, including Mr. Stevenson's. Standing outside the charred building, Mr. Stevenson recalled the deadly silence of last night's fire.

"The smoke in the hallway was so dense, it seemed like it suffocated everything, even sounds," said Mr. Stevenson, a 72-year-old retired explosives engineer. "My wife and I were lucky to get out."

Two brothers, Leroy Sacks, 45, and George Sacks, 48, died in the two-alarm fire, which broke out shortly after 1 a.m. yesterday at the apartments in Reisterstown. Two firefighters were injured battling the blaze and seven families were left homeless.

The fire started in the brothers' basement apartment at 404 Shirley Manor Road. Careless smoking appeared to be the cause, said Lt. Richard Brooks of the county Fire Department.

The Stevensons were getting ready for bed when Viola Stevenson heard shouting from the Sackses' apartment across the hall. She opened her door and was hit by a wall of smoke, Mr. Stevenson said.

"She called 911, then went around knocking on the other doors to make sure the neighbors were up," he said. "She tried to make it up to the third-floor apartments but the smoke drove her back down."

Yesterday, one of Mr. Stevenson's neighbors, Kenneth Briscoe, also recalled the tornado that ripped through the complex Oct. 18, 1990, leaving 60 people injured and another 50 displaced.

"After seeing the damage to the other buildings right around us, I felt sorry for the people who lost their apartments and their belongings," said Mr. Briscoe. "But I also felt extremely relieved that we were so fortunate."

The fortune that saved the Briscoes then nearly deserted them yesterday morning. Mr. Briscoe had just finished showering in his third-floor apartment when the fire started. He said he walked out of the bathroom and saw flames licking through the partially opened patio door.

"I woke up my wife and son and headed out the door to the hallway," he said.

Their 5-month-old mixed-breed puppy, Georgie, followed them out.

"We all got out OK, but for some reason -- I don't know if he got confused -- but Georgie ran back inside," said Mr. Briscoe. "I tried to go back after him, but the flames and the smoke wouldn't let me."

Georgie hasn't been found. Yesterday, Mr. Briscoe's wife, Brenda, tearfully paced in front of the burned-out building, occasionally glancing up at the gutted remains of their apartment and calling Georgie's name. Mr. Briscoe watched her, his hands cradling a pile of charred photographs and photo albums -- all that was left of their belongings.

"We lost everything, but I keep telling myself it can all be replaced, and I still have my family," he said, then paused. "All except Georgie."

Throughout yesterday, victims went through their fire-ravaged

apartments, salvaged what belongings they could and placed them in piles on the parking lot outside the building.

"The neighbors around here were really great last night, giving us clothes to put on and coffee and food," said Mr. Briscoe. "And I can't say enough good things about the Red Cross. I've given blood for them before. I think I'll give a little more from now on."

In the hours immediately after the fire, several people sought shelter at Reisterstown United Methodist Church. Among them was a despondent young man named David. He had lost his Michael Jordan signature basketball, said the Rev. Ron Foster. After a brief conversation, Mr. Foster, a volunteer and David and another youngster took to the church's indoor basketball court and played games of two-on-two until about 6 a.m.

"David made five straight baskets and everyone was cheering him on," said Mr. Foster. "He really perked up. At least for a while, his mind was on something else."

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