Cecil blaze injures 8 firefighters

Racing fire sweeps through homes on North East River

`An inferno, a real inferno'

Helicopters evacuate two caught inside, one felled by smoke

May 02, 2001|By Jim Haner and Andrew A. Green | Jim Haner and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST - A catastrophic fire swept through a string of luxury waterfront townhouses in Cecil County yesterday afternoon - severely injuring three volunteer firefighters, overcoming five more and causing approximately $1.5 million in damage.

State fire officials said last night that a major contributing factor in the North East blaze was the absence of firewalls between the units, which may have been built before the advent of stricter state building codes.

Used primarily as vacation homes, most of the units were vacant at the time, and officials reported no injuries to residents.

Three firefighters were evacuated to Baltimore by helicopter. Edward Reynolds of North East and Gary Bott of Charlestown were admitted to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center with burns over 50 percent of their bodies. They were listed in good condition late last night. Howard Flowers of North East, who suffered carbon monoxide inhalation, was listed in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"I have been in the ... fire service for 28 years, and this is the first time I ever flew anybody out," said a haggard Chief Joe W. Combs of the North East Fire Company as he surveyed the sodden, smoldering wreckage by floodlight last night.

The fire was reported about 3 p.m. yesterday by groundskeepers at North East Isles, a complex of $250,000 marina-style vacation houses with private docks on the North East River, officials said.

By 3:30 p.m., volunteers from the North East and nearby Charlestown fire companies were on the scene. They were confronted by a fast-moving blaze that swept down a row of eight townhouses in a matter of minutes.

"We've had [major] fires before, but nothing that has come to this culmination this quick," said Steve J. Piatelli, an assistant chief with the North East Fire Company who was among the first to arrive.

Piatelli said that as his men rushed to lay out hoses and other gear, Reynolds, 22, and Bott - a 19-year veteran of the Charlestown company and a professional firefighter at Aberdeen Proving Ground - went inside one of the units to assess the severity of what appeared at first to be a moderate-size fire.

Suddenly, the temperature skyrocketed, the windows exploded and thick smoke streamed from the interior, overwhelming Flowers, who was standing outside. The self-employed home handyman and 12-year veteran of the North East volunteers was felled by the choking smoke."

[Flowers] took a pretty good wallop," Piatelli said in describing the scene, which was out of control in less than five minutes after the firefighters' arrival.

Barry L. Drandakis, who was taking a walk when he arrived at the block of homes on North East Isles Drive, recalled seeing flames flickering across a small patch of one roof and boaters on the river pointing landward - then bedlam.

"BOOM!" he said. "An inferno, a real inferno."

The fire burst left and right and engulfed eight units "just like that," said Jeff L. Fronheiser, chief engineer of the Charlestown Fire Company and a 29-year veteran.

As the fire ripped across the shared roofline of the eight houses, flames shot far enough through the third-floor windows to scorch nearby trees.

Firefighters charged into one house to search for Bott and Reynolds, but were beaten back by heat and smoke. Tense moments later, Piatelli said, the two men stumbled down an interior stairwell from the second floor and were dragged out by their comrades.

With three men down and the fire tearing toward other units in the complex, commanders put in the call for backup units and dispatchers quickly sounded a second alarm, then a third, then a fourth.

"Once she got rolling, putting water on her was nothing," one Charlestown volunteer said. "You put the hose here, the fire goes there. You put the hose there, the fire goes here."

Twelve companies responded with more than 30 trucks and 100 firefighters before the blaze was brought under control. A state police helicopter flew in and out, removing the casualties.

"There was no fire separation between the units, no firewalls," said Deputy State Fire Marshal Mark Bilger. "That was undoubtedly a contributing factor, but we won't have the whole picture for a couple more days. We have three floors, all collapsed to the ground, to dig through tonight."

Also treated for minor injuries and released at area hospitals were: Kevin Ryan of Elkton; Keith Fayer of Perryville; and Doug McGee, Ken Truitt and Ray Blakely, all of Rising Sun.

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