Firefighters were superb

Towering inferno: Rescuers using helicopter to reach trapped residents helped reduce death and injury toll.

February 09, 1999

IT CAN take an extraordinary effort by public servants simply doing their jobs to remind the rest of us that there is nothing simple about what they do. Baltimore firefighters, police officers and rescue personnel responded swiftly to the deadly fire early last Friday in a Charles Street apartment building. Their performance in the worst downtown fire in 20 years saved hundreds of lives. They deserve commendation for a job well done.

The fire at Charles Center Towers caught sleeping residents off guard. Many reacted slowly because of several false alarms in recent weeks. The fire department's Special Operating Rescue Team was activated for the first time. Eight firefighters trained to handle high-rise blazes were lowered to the roof by helicopter and went door-to-door to help people.

Amazingly, only one death occurred. Johncie Alberta Montgomery, 72, had a heart attack as she tried to escape from the 25th floor. Nine other persons were injured. It took 170 firefighters two hours to extinguish the worst high-rise fire downtown since the 1977 USF&G building blaze left a fireman dead.

The Charles Center Towers fire was the second downtown within a week. Four days earlier the 7-story Knickerbocker office building caught fire. Neither building had sprinklers. Both were built before a 1981 city code required the devices. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says he will consider expanding the code to all downtown buildings, but that raises other issues.

The expense of retrofitting old buildings would drive up rents and set back efforts to promote downtown residency. Of the 141 office buildings downtown, 112 were built before the stricter fire code took effect. Common sense dictates an effective alarm system in buildings without sprinklers. For their own sake, high-rise residents must be reminded to respond swiftly to every alarm.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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