Firefighters evacuate just before blast Windows, door blown out as furniture store near Dundalk burns

July 20, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance and Jackie Powder | Frank D. Roylance and Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Baltimore firefighters battling a raging furniture store fire near Dundalk escaped without serious injury yesterday when they evacuated the building minutes before the fire touched off an explosion.

"We were just very, very damn lucky that we didn't lose a bunch of guys in this one," said Fire Lt. Ronald O'Brien, a 31-year veteran.

He said his company was standing three feet from the door when the explosion "blew the front door right across the sidewalk. One of my firefighters was blown back three or four feet, head over heels."

O'Brien credited 1st Battalion Acting Chief John Seiss with averting disaster.

"If it wasn't for the chief recognizing that something was wrong, we would have had a bunch of seriously injured, if not dead, firefighters," O'Brien said.

It took firefighters two hours to bring the five-alarm fire at 6712 Holabird Ave., just inside the city line, under control. The used-furniture store and a second-floor apartment were destroyed, and seven people were left homeless.

Seven people -- five of them firefighters -- were taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and to Mercy Medical Center for treatment. Fire officials said none of the injuries was regarded as serious.

O'Brien said he believed the blast from the building was caused by back-draft conditions, which develop when heat and smoke build to combustible levels in an enclosed space, then ignite in a powerful explosion with temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees.

"There was so much heat and smoke that had to vent, and it blew right out the windows, and anybody in its way would have gone with it," he said.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a city Fire Department spokesman, said he doubted that a back-draft explosion occurred, but said that something inside the building might have blown up.

Injured firefighters

The cause of the fire was being investigated by the Fire Investigation Bureau and the police arson squad.

The injured firefighters were Paul Britt, 52, who suffered neck burns; Thomas Ecker, 40, wrist burns; Walter Zielezinski, 47, foot injury; Robert W. Nagle Jr., 32, and Francis Linton, 50. Nagle and Linton were both treated for wrist injuries at Mercy and released.

Treated at Bayview and released were Michael Dana, 39, who suffered first-degree facial burns, and Donna White, 43, who reported she was having difficulty breathing. Their addresses were not available.

"Apparently nobody was inside the building when firefighters arrived," Torres said. But that was not known to Dana, who reportedly kicked in a rear door in an attempt to alert anyone still inside. He was greeted by a blast of hot embers in his face, Torres said.

Across the street, White suffered what might have been an asthma attack triggered by smoke from the fire, he said.

First alarm

The first alarm was sounded at 12: 51 p.m., Torres said. Firefighters found the furniture store engulfed in flame.

The blaze might have started in the basement, he said. But "there were quite a bit of knicknacks and things on the first floor. That added to the fire load," Torres said.

Firefighters were told a second-floor apartment was occupied by seven men. John Skordalos, a neighbor, said the apartment was a halfway house for recovering alcoholics. Five of the men were quickly accounted for. Two others reportedly were away when the fire broke out.

O'Brien said firefighters entering the building saw no signs that back-draft conditions, such as puffs of smoke seeping through the bricks, might have been developing.

Sirens sounded

But conditions were deteriorating. O'Brien said Seiss grew concerned and ordered all trucks at the scene to sound their sirens for one minute -- a signal for everyone inside to get out immediately.

Torres said the evacuation was ordered because "the integrity of the first floor was in question."

Two minutes later, O'Brien said, the explosion occurred.

Skordalos said he and other bystanders thought the fire was under control, then "the next thing you know, flames shot the windows across the street."

Torres said back-draft explosions occur in buildings that are effectively sealed. The furniture store had vented when fire fighters arrived, making it unlikely a back draft occured, he said.

Two more alarms

Commanders sounded two more alarms to bring added equipment. Fourth and fifth alarms were rung later to bring fresh people to relieve firefighters working in the 84-degree heat.

"It was a hot day and a rough fire," said Shift Commander Donald Heimbuch.

The fire caused an estimated $175,000 damage to the building and $25,000 to the contents, Torres said.

The adjoining Brentwood Medical Center was damaged when firefighters broke in to clear it of smoke. Dr. Mohammad Taqi, an internist there, said the center suffered minor smoke damage, but would be open this morning.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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