Displaced families form friendship in ashes of fire

Arundel apartment blaze brings neighbors together

February 08, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Natalie McGrath fought back tears as she sorted through her 2 1/2 -year-old daughter's waterlogged stuffed animals in her Pasadena basement apartment, where the acrid smell of smoke clung to every piece of fabric.

Upstairs, neighbor Kerry Dennis, peeled a yellowed school portrait of her 7-year-old daughter from the glass of a frame and held it for her husband to see.

"Aw, look what happened," she said to John Dennis, who glumly shook his head.

A third-floor attic blaze last week left the two young families, and an older couple, in a precarious situation -- one that thousands in this area face each year. Their residence did not burn to the ground, but it sustained enough smoke and water damage to render it uninhabitable.

The Red Cross, which responds to fire scenes when someone is displaced, reported assisting 3,548 Baltimore-area residents between July 2001 and June, an average of 300 a month.

The number of serious fires increases in the winter months, said Capt. Lee Cornwell of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, when people are more likely to use their fireplaces and dangerous alternative heating devices.

Last month, Anne Arundel firefighters battled 10 residential blazes that were so bad that the occupants could not return, he said.

In the 10 days since the apartment fire in Pasadena, which authorities have attributed to a malfunctioning chimney, the families have been salvaging what they can and moving into new apartments in the same complex.

As late as yesterday, they were still discovering that some of their belongings, from baby clothes to a matching sofa and love seat, could not be saved.

From the outside, 8107 Dewberry Court looks like any of Marley Run's tidy, olive-sided apartment buildings. But conditions inside three of the units were so bad that the residents had to wear surgical masks and thick plastic gloves when they walked through to survey the damage 48 hours after the fire.

On that day, they raised their voices a notch to talk over the hum of industrial fans placed inside to dry the putty-colored carpet.

They stepped over their belongings, strewn about the center of each room, and sidestepped damp furniture that they will either have to throw away or have professionally cleaned.

And, from time to time, they darted outside to catch a breath of fresh air or to rub their eyes, stinging from remaining fumes.

Bright blue tarps covered parts of the Dennises' furniture to protect it from water damage. But some things, such as the saturated yellow-and-blue floral bedspread in the master bedroom and the huge lavender bunny in their daughter's room, may be beyond hope.

"Nothing like this -- not even close -- has ever happened to us," said John Dennis, 27. He was the first to arrive at the apartment complex the day of the fire, which happened about 2:30 p.m. Jan. 29. "I drove up, and my heart started pounding," he said.

The third-floor apartment where the fire started in the attic has a hole in the roof from the flames, as well as smoke and water damage similar to the lower two apartments.

Residents Robert Hoffman, 57, and his wife, Sharon, were not injured in the blaze, which began shortly after she lighted a fire in the fireplace. Although the fire was not their fault, they have told the other families that they feel terrible about what happened.

"They are so sympathetic to us," said Jim McGrath, 33. "I feel just as bad for them as I do for the Dennises."

Since the fire, the Dennises and McGraths have leaned on the Red Cross and insurance agencies to help them financially, and they have leaned on each other for emotional support.

"What's going to resolve this is everyone sticking together and helping each other out," said Jim McGrath, 33.

"I suspect that we're going to be friends for a long time," added his wife, Natalie McGrath, 30. "It's a newfound friendship under sad circumstances."

The McGraths have lived at Marley Run since August 2001, but the Dennises just moved into their apartment a month ago. The two families hadn't met until the fire. The Red Cross put them up at a local Days Inn for a few days while the families planned their next move. It's especially tough for the newcomers, whose renter's insurance policy was scheduled to begin Feb. 1 -- less than 72 hours after the fire.

The McGraths, who have insurance, have offered to lend their new friends money and say they will keep checking on them as they settle into their new apartment.

The Dennises have started from scratch.

"Always learning the hard way," Kerry Dennis said with a sigh.

The Dennises' daughter, Brianna, and the McGrath's daughter, Haley, have been holding up remarkably well, the couples said. Haley even comforted her mother as she cried on the phone to a relative.

"It'll be OK, we not hurt," Natalie McGrath recalled her young daughter saying. Both girls have been staying with relatives as their families sort out the details of moving.

"I don't want her to see this," a tearful Natalie McGrath said as she stood in her daughter's nursery shortly after the fire.

Focusing on their children -- and their budding friendships -- seems to have helped the couples through the past week. Brianna lost a precious toy puppy in the fire, which the McGraths tried to replace with a similar-looking stuffed animal.

"We'll get through this," Jim McGrath said. "Nobody died, and nobody was hurt. And, really that's what's important."

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