Families look for lodging Arson displaces 60 in Hamilton apartment house

January 11, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer Staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

Shaken residents of the Hamilton Ridge apartments in Northeast Baltimore were trying to get their lives in order yesterday after the second major fire in three months drove an estimated 60 people from 21 apartments.

Arson has been ruled the cause of the four-alarm fire, which broke out about 7 p.m. Saturday in a basement storage room at 4812 Hamilton Ave. No arrest has been made. Damage to the building was estimated at $350,000.

A similar fire Oct. 24, in an adjacent 22-unit building at 4808-4810 Hamilton Ave., caused $130,000 in damage. It was officially labeled an electrical fire, but residents of the apartments suspect that arson was the cause of that fire, too, and they see Saturday's blaze as the return of a nightmare.

"I don't believe that [October fire] was no electrical fire," said Ethel Felder, 61. She said she was forced out of her home at 4808 Hamilton Ave. by that fire, which broke out at 4:30 a.m. in a basement storage area of her building.

The October fire dislocated 14 families but injured no one. The building remains boarded, awaiting further repairs.

"This is very suspicious to me," said Mrs. Felder. She now lives in another, nearby apartment at Hamilton Ridge unaffected by either fire. "It's frightening, because I'm scared to go to sleep," she said.

Carol Budnichuk, a leasing consultant at Hamilton Ridge, was letting residents into some of the blackened apartments yesterday to retrieve belongings. She and other residents interviewed yesterday suspected the October fire was set after a dispute involving a drug dealer.

Capt. Robert Hatoff of the Fire Department's arson unit investigated the October fire at Hamilton Ridge. The cause was electrical, he said: "It started along a wire in the basement."

Asked about residents' suspicions about a drug-related revenge fire, the captain said, "I have no information in regard to that."

Apartment residents said they also recalled a third fire that damaged units in the building across the street from the building that burned Saturday night.

Captain Hatoff said that fire, on Aug. 4, 1990, caused $20,000 in damage. It, too, was ruled arson, and no arrest was made.

In Saturday's fire, Captain Hatoff said, the flames began in the storage area, then damaged gas meters on the wall, causing natural gas to escape and feed the fire. Firefighters brought the blaze under control at 10:53 p.m., almost four hours after it began.

Michael R. Harrison, 41, said he had just kicked off his shoes and settled down to watch TV after returning home from his #i grandmother's funeral when "somebody started running through the hall yelling 'Fire!' "

Finding heavy smoke at his door, he put on his shoes and began groping for a way down the stairs through the smoke and darkness.

Mr. Harrison, a former WMAR-TV news photographer who has covered many residential fires, said it all "looks totally different from the other side. . . . It was horrifying."

After he escaped, Mr. Harrison said, he ran to the rear of the building, where he and others helped four children, ages 10 to 12, climb down from a third-floor balcony. A young couple and their baby, he said, were also assisted from the building before firefighters arrived with ladders.

Mr. Harrison, who now works as a car salesman, said he got out with nothing but the clothes on his back: "I know all my stuff is gone."

Although the apartment management and at least one enterprising insurance salesman urged residents after the October fire to purchase apartment insurance, few did, according to Ms. Budnichuk.

"You say yes, you're going to get it, but then you never get around to doing it," Mr. Harrison said.

Lena Eads, 31, who lived alone one floor below Mr. Harrison's apartment, said she was watching TV, about to go to sleep when she heard the commotion in the hall.

Seeing smoke seeping through the floor of her bedroom, she tried to call 911, but the phone didn't work.

"I just grabbed my purse and some shoes -- no socks -- and opened the door," she said. "The smoke was real dark. I said, 'I got to get out,' but I couldn't get down the steps."

Two men finally helped her climb down from the rear balcony. She, too, lost everything, but was happy to be alive.

"You can always replace material things," she said. "I thought I was going to die when I saw that smoke."

By yesterday morning, the building had been boarded up, but water from a broken line continued to flow from it.

Three small dogs, dirty, wet and shivering, alternately ran through the mud and broken glass and huddled by the entryway, occasionally pawing at the locked door. A note there advised residents that a kitten left homeless by the fire had been rescued and was being cared for by a neighbor.

Ms. Budnichuk said Allstate Management, which runs the complex, will try to find alternative housing in nearby developments for people left homeless by the fire. But, she said, "I have no place to put them here."

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