5 city firefighters injured as floor of house collapses

Burns, fall leave two in critical condition

January 03, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Five Baltimore firefighters fell as much as 30 feet yesterday afternoon when a top floor of a vacant rowhouse collapsed as they tried to keep a stubborn fire from spreading along a city block.

The firefighters, apparently standing on the second and third floors of the North Broadway house, fell to the basement and were showered with burning embers and debris.

Two were listed last night in critical but stable condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The others were less severely hurt and were being treated at Mercy Medical Center.

Three other firefighters suffered minor injuries while rescuing their colleagues.

Marvin Johnson, 67, said he could see at least two firefighters battling flames in a third-story window in the 1500 block of North Broadway when he heard a roar from the collapse.

"They just disappeared," said Johnson, who lives down the street from the fire.

The incident recalled the 1995 Clipper Industrial Park blaze in Woodberry. A wall fell and killed Firefighter Eric D. Schaefer, the last city firefighter to die in the line of duty.

Names of the injured firefighters were not released last night. The department spokesman, Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, said the firefighter at Hopkins was the most severely injured, with burns to his lungs from breathing in hot air, and to his back.

He said the firefighter at Shock Trauma suffered burns to his knees and injuries from the fall. Those at Mercy suffered broken bones, including a fractured wrist and finger.

"It's a scary situation when you know that people have fallen through floors and are trapped in the basement," Torres said. "The job of a firefighter is dangerous."

Last night, Mayor Martin O'Malley visited all the firefighters in the hospitals.

Investigators had not determined a cause of the fire last night. It was first reported about 3:30 p.m. and quickly went to three alarms, bringing 60 firefighters to the scene.

The boarded rowhouse is one of 12 vacant dwellings on the east side of the block and is next to an occupied home.

With fire raging in the attic and third floor, fire commanders sent firefighters into the building to prevent flames from spreading along a common cockloft, an open space that runs the length of the block and connects 20 rowhouses.

"The best way of preventing fire from spreading is an interior attack," Torres said. He said going inside is a judgment call made by on-scene commanders.

Firefighters were trying to save the house next door owned by Evelyn Bland, 68, who said neighbors knocked on her door to alert her to the fire. Her house is sandwiched between two vacant dwellings, two doors from where three other vacant rowhouses burned a few months ago.

She said she has repeatedly called City Hall to try to get help for her block. As she watched the fire spread to her roof, she counted the boarded homes. "Twelve," she said. "On one side of the street."

Yesterday's fire comes two weeks after Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. called the city's 10,500 vacant rowhouses fire traps that risk people's lives.

His remarks came after a homeless man died in a fire at a vacant rowhouse on Normandy Avenue in West Baltimore. Vacant houses are often havens for addicts looking for a place to use drugs or the homeless looking for a spot to sleep.

For neighborhoods, they can be an unsightly blight. Fire officials said they also can be dangerous. Sending firefighters into burning vacant homes is not an easy call.

"We could just bail water in," Torres said. "But the homes adjoining these properties are often occupied. It does affect people when fires are allowed to spread."

Yesterday's fire on Broadway was under control at 5:20 p.m., though firefighters and arson investigators were on the scene into the night.

Johnson, who heard the collapse and saw two of the firefighters disappear from the window, said the fire appeared routine until the roar from the collapse.

"It was a loud noise," he said.

The frantic call for help over the radio brought off-duty firefighters to the Broadway median, all clutching scanners as they tried to learn the condition of their trapped colleagues.

Meanwhile, firefighters aboard Rescue 1, the city's primary response unit for complicated extractions, sped to the scene to assist in digging out the basement. Torres said the two critically injured firefighters were trapped for 10 to 15 minutes.

Torres said investigators are unsure where each firefighter was when the collapse occurred. Some, he said, might have been on the second floor when the one above gave way and took the lower floors out with it.

"Whenever you have a fire in a building, the integrity of the building is questionable," Torres said.

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