Amid fire and fear, a friend

Solace: Rebecca Comfort, 22, trapped by a blaze in her high-rise apartment building, found a lifeline in the form of a 911 dispatcher.

February 12, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Rebecca Comfort sang a romantic song she had written for her boyfriend. She said a prayer. She prepared to die.

Trapped by fire six floors below and gagging on smoke that filled her 21st-story apartment in last week's Charles Center Tower blaze in downtown Baltimore, she lay on the floor with a cordless phone -- her lifeline.

The college student spoke for 90 minutes with a veteran 911 dispatcher she knew only as Susan, turning her private thoughts into a public record of terror and spiritual contemplation.

You know, I feel like I'm ready to die.

You mean, you are facing the fact that it could happen?

Yeah, like I know that I've accepted Jesus in my life and I know that when I die, Jesus will take me home with him.

That's good. That's very good. You're so calm I can't believe it.

Comfort was one of the hundreds of tenants who made 413 calls that jammed emergency lines as flames raced through five floors of the 30-story building in the early hours of Feb. 5. Her conversations are among the most vivid reminders of the blaze that trapped tenants and killed a 72-year-old woman.

How's the smoke now?

Terrible. I'm going to stick my head out the window.

If that helps, by all means do that. They have helicopters coming there also.

Oh, thank you.

Comfort was talking to Dispatcher Susan Sampson, who has spent two decades getting help to people in dire circumstances. She once listened to a gunshot victim die on the other end of a telephone line. Yet the calls that poured in from Charles Center Tower have haunted her for days.

"I truly believed that some of the people were going to die," Sampson said of the fire-trapped callers. "I have never felt so helpless."

Sampson and Comfort have never met. Comfort, 22, grew up in Cumberland and is studying social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Sampson, 44, is a public servant who took time to help amid a frenzy of activity -- a stranger to whom Comfort talked about life, love and God.

"I didn't know if anybody could save me," Comfort said this week. "I didn't know how many people were trapped. I didn't know if other people were alive. I felt like I was all alone. I would just like to thank her for being there and staying on the line with me. She was my only resource."

Comfort repeatedly turned to religion, and at one point asked Sampson about her beliefs.

Have you accepted the Lord into your life?

Yes.

I'm more concerned about you right now than myself.

Why?

Because I'm secure in Jesus and I don't know that you've come to the same point in your life.

Well, I guess I never really had to think about it that much.

Do you want to think about it now?

Right now I'm kind of preoccupied with what is going on with you.

What is more important, eternity or right now?

You to me, right now.

Sampson was working a graveyard shift on overtime and had settled into a quiet night. The first call from Charles Center Tower at 1: 22 a.m. was routine -- alarm bells sounding.

But moments after the first firetrucks rolled out of the Old Town station on Hillen Street, a dozen blocks from Charles Center Tower, Sampson's switchboard lighted up. A frantic race to save lives began in what the city fire chief said "could have been a real-life towering inferno."

Tenants hung out windows high above Charles Street waving towels and lamps, waiting to be rescued. Firefighters were lowered from helicopters to the high-rise roof to reach residents trapped above the 18th floor.

Lying on her dining room floor, Comfort grabbed her phone and dialed 911. She got a busy signal. She called and talked to her boyfriend, James Benjamin, a 26-year-old law student, then to her parents in Cumberland.

Benjamin got through to 911 and the operator, Sampson, called Comfort. In 10-minute chunks -- interrupted when Comfort broke away to talk to her boyfriend when he called -- Sampson stayed on the phone. She eventually switched Comfort to a private line at the dispatch center to free up the overwhelmed 911 system.

Sampson handled other calls as well: a man who had burning embers flying in through a window; a woman who hung up to call her mother "and tell her that I love her;" a woman who hid in her bathroom and had missed being rescued. "She said the firefighters came up and got everyone off the floor, `but they didn't get me,' " Sampson said.

Fire officials said it is Comfort's call that stands out. Fire officials have played it for a visiting delegation of dispatchers who came to study the department's new computers.

Comfort's fear is played against Sampson's frustration -- a dispatcher who wants to help, but is unsure of what information to give out because she doesn't know where the fire is or how firefighters are progressing.

"All I can do is stay on and pray with you and hope for the best," Sampson told Comfort.

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