High toll on young, elderly from fires alarms officials

Two groups make up bulk of Baltimore fire fatalities

April 03, 1999|By Peter Hermann and Jennifer Sullivan | Peter Hermann and Jennifer Sullivan,SUN STAFF

When fire broke out Thursday evening in a Northwest Baltimore rowhouse, Elisha Woods, a 20-year-old paraplegic, managed to crawl downstairs, climb into her wheelchair and wait by a kitchen door to be rescued.

Her grandfather, James Jenkins, 81, couldn't get out of his second-floor bedroom. He died despite several attempts by family members and neighbors to fight through thick smoke and reach the former dockworker known for his sweet potato pie.

Jenkins became the city's seventh fire fatality of the year and the sixth person 70 or older to die in a fire. The death toll among the elderly has focused attention on a troubling trend for fire officials: The city's youngest and oldest residents routinely make up the bulk of fire deaths.

"Maybe these things happen because it's God's way of telling us we, as a society, need to help the elderly," said Michele Woods-Pinto, Jenkins' granddaughter and a fifth-grade teacher in Baltimore County.

The problem is not confined to Baltimore. Statistics compiled by the Maryland State Fire Marshal show that 23 percent to 30 percent of fire fatalities from 1996 through 1998 were older than 64.

Six of the 12 deaths investigated this year by the fire marshal's office -- which is responsible for 19 of the state's 23 jurisdictions -- involved elderly victims.

"There are two distinct age groups," said Maryland Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele, "the young and the elderly. It's a challenge to figure out what we can do to stop these things from happening."

In Baltimore, which had 34 of the state's 78 fire fatalities last year, no children have died in fires this year. By contrast, 1997 began with a January house fire that killed five people, three of them children 1 to 4 years old.

Age breakdowns for victims of city fires in recent years were not available yesterday. But of the 40 people who died in city fires in 1995, 14 were under age 14 and 11 were over age 64.

Alerting the public

Gabriele said his office is trying to get public attention focused on the issue, and to encourage family members to make frequent checks of elderly relatives who live alone.

He said the elderly don't react as quickly as others in emergencies. Typically, an occupant of a dwelling has about 90 seconds to get out of a house once a smoke detector goes off.

Neetu Dhawan-Gray, the director of Baltimore's Commission on Aging, said workers are compiling information on the city's elderly population and providing the information to the 911 computers of the police and fire departments.

That way, she said, dispatchers will be able to provide emergency workers with detailed information about a patient's medical condition, such as whether the occupant uses a cane or can only get out through a side or back entrance.

`Elderly are in distress

Dhawan-Gray said 17 percent of the city's 670,000 residents are over 60, and the number is growing. "The population is declining, but what is remaining are the elderly," she said. "The elderly are in great distress.

Baltimore Fire Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said the city fires this year have few similarities that could lead to the development of plans to prevent further tragedies. The causes and circumstances vary.

One man in his 90s was killed in a fire sparked when he tried to light a kerosene heater. A 76-year-old man managed to shove a woman friend out a window, saving her before he collapsed and died in the fire. Another man in his 90s died when he tried to extinguish a fire before dialing 911.

Woods-Pinto said yesterday that she did not know if her grandfather panicked or was too overcome by smoke to move. Shirley Tyler, a neighbor, could not fight her way upstairs, but did get Woods out of the burning home.

"The good Lord was with that child," she said.

Officials seek cause

Woods and Jenkins were home alone when the fire broke out about 6 p.m. Fire officials have not ruled on a cause, but family members said that three second-floor bedrooms were burned out.

Woods-Pinto said her grandfather worked on Baltimore's docks and was a trustee of the Parklane Baptist Church in Dickeyville. She recalled a swing set he built for children and his sweet potato pie and rice pudding.

"He was the kindest person I knew," she said.

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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