An arson fire heavily damaged a Dundalk apartment building yesterday morning, trapping residents on balconies and injuring at least five people -- two of them from jumping in panic, authorities said.
The consequences could have been much worse, according to police and fire officials, if a man leaving his neighboring townhouse near sunrise hadn't seen heavy smoke pouring from the first floor of the building and awakened many of the people in its 24 units.
"There was nobody around, just me," said John Melzer, of the 1600 block of Manor Road, a 39-year-old General Motors Corp. assembler. "I just started screaming and banging on the doors. The main thing seemed to be to get the people out."
Before the first fire trucks arrived, Mr. Melzer had helped two women and three children -- and a dog, although he's terrified of dogs -- from a second-floor balcony at 1615 Four Georges Court, the officials said.
But just as the help was arriving, a man and a woman tore through chicken wire enclosing a third-floor balcony and jumped to the ground.
Laurie Day, 35, was taken to the Francis Scott Key Medical Center, and Lee Dixon, 69, was at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, said Battalion Chief Michael T. Whittaker, a Baltimore County fire department spokesman.
Two victims of smoke inhalation also were hospitalized -- Raymond Day, 9, who was released after treatment at Franklin Square, and Barbara Dellinger, 47, who was treated at Key and released. Another man was treated at the scene.
The first firefighters answering the 7 a.m. call found heavy smoke and flames, and called for reinforcements.
The fire, under control just after 8 a.m., had been deliberately set in a first-floor laundry room, Chief Whittaker said.
Damage estimates were incomplete, and the cause and a possible arson suspect were under investigation last night.
"The fire entered the hallway and there was no exit," Chief Whittaker said. "It was impassable, with heat and smoke."
Residents probably were saved by Mr. Melzer's warning, he said.
Officer Joe Ripple, of the North Point precinct, and other officers and firefighters helped at least four other residents off their balconies in the 12-unit half of the building affected by the blaze. The other side was protected by a fire wall, officials said.
In the afternoon, still shaken by the events, Mr. Melzer said, "It was a good feeling to get those people out. I feel honored, I don't know how else to say it . . . You never in your lifetime expect a situation like this -- of course, you do favors for people -- but to actually save a person, it's really an honor.
"I'm not the type to give orders, but I found myself telling people what to do. It's amazing to me."
Also, as he recalled lowering a boy he guessed to be about 11 years old, he observed, "You don't realize how strong you are 'til you're put in that position."
Mr. Melzer said he got up early to go to a flea market, when he saw thick smoke pouring through the decoratively cut-out concrete blocks of the apartments across the alley from his back yard. He went inside to knock on doors, but was driven back by "a wall of heat and smoke."
"So I went back out, yelling for people to get out." Then, he said he climbed on a hand rail and pulled himself up to an apartment balcony, where he began handing down three children to an unidentified man on the ground and helping two women climb down to safety.
"One of them was afraid, like she was afraid of heights or something, so I said, 'Look, you can't stay here. In a couple of minutes this place will be gone.' So we got her foot on the rail, and we got her down OK."
"Then, I saw this dog, like a cocker spaniel, looking at me with these big eyes like, 'Oh, no,' like there was no hope -- and I'm scared to death of dogs." He was bitten at the age of six, Mr. Melzer said, but "I see this dog and I climb back up to get it. There's just no way, when they give you that sad look -- I couldn't have lived with that."
The dog tried to run back into the apartment, but was blocked by the smoke and heat, and Mr. Melzer was able to grab it by the neck and lower it to the ground. "I was afraid it was going to turn on me, but it didn't give me any trouble."
"When I looked up . . . there in a balcony caged in with chicken wire were these people [a man, a woman and at least one child] . . . with their faces against the screen, gasping. There wasn't much we could do.
"They clawed this wire open, and a police officer got a boy out. Then I look up . . . and here she goes, over the side. It was the scariest thing: You couldn't do anything, and she just landed -- and then he jumped.
" . . .This all happened really fast, and it spread really fast."
Mr. Dixon was in critical but stable condition last night, a Shock Trauma Center spokesman said. Ms. Day was listed in stable condition at the Key Medical Center.
Linda Klein, of the Central Maryland Red Cross chapter, said, "We had people go out to the scene, and it seems they all had family and friends to stay with. We helped one family with groceries."