By end of ordeal, shelter had become small town

Residents leave haven after hostage-taker dies

March 22, 2000|By Nancy A. Youssef and Rafael Alvarez | Nancy A. Youssef and Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Berkshire Elementary School turned into a small town in recent days, a village of 70 residents, with a list of rules and its own mayor as the hostage situation on nearby Lange Street ground into its fifth day.

Last night, the make-shift community pulled up stakes as police shot and killed suspected murderer Joseph C. Palczynski and Dundalk began returning to normal.

"Everyone was clapping and cheering when the news came on TV," said Joan Ruth, who had been living at the school with her young grandson since Saturday night, leaving her two dogs behind. Besides pets Root Beer and Snuggles, she feared that her car -- insured for liability alone -- might be riddled with gunfire.

After the hostage situation ended with Palczynski's death at 11: 05 p.m., people began packing up their food.

As people waited to be picked up by loved ones, the talk was largely the same -- how did the hostages escape?

The "Citizens of the American Red Cross Shelter," as they called themselves, tried to accept the reality of their situation and convert part of the school -- where the Red Cross facility is centered -- into a home.

"It seems like we shouldn't be having fun, but we have to have fun to keep our minds off it," said "Mayor" Rich Meritt, 26, who lives on Berkshire Road, 20 yards from the hostage scene and whose wife remained at home, refusing to leave.

The residents slept on cots in the gym. They watched television in the hallway and played Yahtzee and Monopoly in the cafeteria.

They also struggled to contain their anger about the standoff.

"I was angry at him even when this whole thing started. I'm angry at him for making us live in fear," said Renee Bures, 34, who was at the grocery store Friday when she learned she would not be able to get back to her two children at home, Tyler, 7, and Madelyn, 4.

Bures, who was reunited with her children at the shelter Sunday, had been following Palczynski's case since March 7, when his alleged violent spree began. "I knew in my heart he would be back in this neighborhood," she said.

"I never thought about what he would do when he got here."

Red Cross officials said residents stopped gluing themselves to television coverage of the standoff and instead have started talking to neighbors they never before got to know.

Some residents had nowhere else to go. Others left family members at home within the restricted area near the hostage scene.

Officials said that when they opened the shelter Friday night, there were only six residents and they only planned to stay for a day.

"The last hostage situation we had, our work was over a half hour after we got there," said Kimberly Telsch, staffing coordinator at the shelter.

"Once it became long-term, we had to think about things other than food and shelter," she said.

That meant games, television, staffing and providing people with hygiene products and clothing. Officials installed a shower at the school by the second day.

They asked cafeteria workers, who usually fed the children, to feed their parents and neighbors as well.

County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger visited the shelter each day, playing basketball with residents the first full day of the standoff.

While residents seem to be adjusting to the situation, a mural drawn by the children on pink paper gives a poignant look at how they feel about the standoff.

Two children drew pictures of themselves crying; one drew a picture of herself and wrote above it, "I'm scared." Another drew a picture of a man with a gun. And in the middle of the mural was a picture of a mental hospital with a man escaping, the word "Bang" above it.

Staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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