One ferocious stroke of lightning abruptly changed the lives of more than 30 people at the Autumn Crest Apartments in Columbia's Oakland Mills village.
Woodbine resident Luis Diaz saw the lightning hit the three-story apartment building with a bang Monday evening as he pulled into the parking lot to visit his father, Carmen Diaz.
Steam then billowed into air as the driving rain mixed with a rapidly spreading fire.
"There were flames all over -- it was like someone was pouring gasoline," Diaz said yesterday as he helped his father move salvageable items out of his damaged apartment.
After observing the lightning strike, Diaz said, he pulled the building's fire alarm -- but it apparently had been shorted out by the lightning strike. He then knocked on residents' doors to warn them of the fire, he said, before calling the Fire Department from his car.
No one was reported hurt.
Many of the displaced Autumn Crest residents returned to the apartments in the 5600 block of Stevens Forest Road yesterday to take what they could from the 12 smoke- and water-damaged apartments.
The Central Maryland Chapter of American Red Cross arranged for eight of the 12 families to stay at the Columbia Inn Monday night, said Emergency Services Manager Scott Knox. In all, more than 30 persons lived in the damaged apartments.
Knox said the Red Cross will help residents replace clothing and furniture and help with relocation costs. The organization spent about $1,000 on lodging, food and clothing Monday night, but Knox said he expects that figure to rise as residents assess what they need.
The displaced residents will be expected to find their own housing or move in with friends or relatives within the next few days, Knox said.
Finding new housing will be a challenge for such residents as Maria Bonilla, who said she paid $902 in rent on the first of the month and now has no money. The native of Guatemala, who speaks little English, is a janitor at a McDonald's.
She has relatives in Ellicott City, but she is not sure if she can stay with them. In the meantime, she's staying at a hotel paid for by the Red Cross.
"We have nowhere to live," she said.
Officials at Autumn Crest and Grady Management Inc., which owns the complex, declined to comment yesterday about the fire or any provisions for displaced tenants. But some residents said the management company will allow them to move to vacant apartments elsewhere in the same complex.
The fire caused about $350,000 in structural damage and $150,000 in damage to contents.
Howard fire investigators yesterday officially ruled the incident an accidental fire caused by lightning.
Fire officials said fires caused by lightning are common, though they could not recall a similar incident in the last two years.
"It's been happening since the Dark Ages," said Sgt. Dennis Beard, a county fire educator. First-floor resident Paul Nurko said the lightning strike "sounded like somebody fired a cannon" and smelled like burning rubber. He, too, knocked on residents' doors to warn them.
"At first, no one responded, but the whole area was covered in smoke," said Nurko, who moved into the apartment two weeks ago from Richmond, Va. "Flames were shooting 20 to 25 feet in the air."
Nurko said his furniture and clothes were damaged by smoke and water. He said he'll be allowed to move to another unit at Autumn Crest.
"Everything happened so quick and so fast," he said. "My whole life is in upheaval. There's so much mental strain from having to move again."
Firefighters arrived at the apartment complex about 7 p.m. and saw heavy smoke on the third floor of the apartment building, said Lt. Sean Kelly, a Howard Fire Department spokesman. About 18 to 20 occupants were evacuated. There were no injuries, Kelly said.
Resident Marvin Gay's third-floor apartment was destroyed by the fire.
Water bubbled from the carpet yesterday as he stepped through the burned remains of his kitchen. Charred beams from the roof littered the floor. The sun shone into the apartment where the roof and part of a wall used to be. "It was the loudest thing I ever heard," Gay said of the lightning strike.
Pub Date: 7/10/96