Houses hit by fire lacked sprinklers

May 03, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The fire that destroyed seven townhouses and damaged another in Cecil County on Tuesday spread quickly because the all-wood structures were built without sprinklers, not because of a lack of fire walls, investigators said yesterday.

Eight firefighters were injured fighting the blaze in North East, three seriously, and the fire caused an estimated $2 million in damage.

Contrary to earlier reports, barrier walls did exist between the units, said Robert B. Thomas Jr., chief deputy state fire marshal. However, the large wooden decks on the backs of the homes, the lack of sprinklers and the time that elapsed before the fire was detected made the blaze too intense for the walls to be effective.

The fire, which was reported shortly before 3 p.m., appears to have begun in the master bedroom of a home in the first block of North East Isles Drive, Thomas said. The owners, Thomas and Jean Skelly, were not there at the time of the fire, nor were the residents of any of the seven other homes damaged.

It was not until the fire had spread to the deck and the roof of the house that a maintenance worker noticed and called firefighters. By the time they arrived a few minutes later, the fire was spreading too rapidly for them to stop it, Thomas said.

"The right set of circumstances [for fire] prevailed, and unfortunately we have a tremendous loss," he said.

Edward E. Reynolds Jr., 22, of the North East fire company and Gary R. Bott, 36, of the Charlestown fire company were admitted to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center with burns over 50 percent of their bodies. Howard R. Flowers, also of the North East company, was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center for smoke inhalation.

Reynolds was released yesterday. Bott was listed in good condition and Flowers in fair condition yesterday.

The homes' developer obtained building permits in 1992, three months before a state law took effect requiring sprinklers in the homes, Thomas said."

[Sprinklers] would have cost about $1 a square foot, and the buildings are approximately 2,600 square feet each, so they would have had $2,600 in a sprinkler system vs. a $2 million loss," he said. Because the damage was so severe, investigators might never know the cause of the fire, Thomas said.

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