2 fires prompt spirit of giving

Apartment managers offer residents, pets a place to stay after blazes

2nd incident at Eastport complex

Anne Arundel

April 30, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Annapolis Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Lonergan was shocked by what he saw after a second fire in three days raged through Eastport's Watergate Village yesterday.

Sure, it was unusual that the complex had two fires in four days - the 20-building collection of apartments has suffered only four fires in the four decades since it was built. But the truly astonishing part, Lonergan and others say, is the way the management company sprang into action after the fires.

Company workers offered sleepy residents coffee and muffins, towels and shelter. They put pets in the leasing office's bathrooms and in staffers' homes. They escorted residents back into their apartments to retrieve medications, money and other essentials.

"I've never seen anything like it," Lonergan said of the response.

Yesterday's three-alarm blaze began shortly after 5 a.m. in the 600 block of Americana Drive, waking residents with its intense crackling and its smoke. It took 50 firefighters from Annapolis, Anne Arundel County and the U.S. Naval Academy about an hour to bring it under control.

One firefighter was injured when he fell through a floor battling the flames. He was treated and released at Anne Arundel Medical Center, but then went to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center burn unit to receive more treatment for burns on his ears, neck and legs, Lonergan said. One civilian was treated for minor burns.

Three units were destroyed, and several others have smoke and water damage.

Darby Jackson's home of seven years - where she lived with husband Douglas, 2-year-old son Cooper and Leonard the cat - is one of the damaged units.

She awoke yesterday and heard flames crackling, handed the cat to her husband, then grabbed Cooper. The couple woke up Darby's mother, who was visiting, and they all ran out to the smoky hallway.

Douglas Jackson then knocked on his neighbors' doors, telling them to get out.

"We didn't see the flames until we went to the other side of the building," Darby Jackson said. "Two apartments there were just engulfed."

As she sat in the Watergate's community room in her pajamas, Darby Jackson praised the apartment management for helping to relocate her family.

"They have been just wonderful," she said.

The Jacksons and others evicted by yesterday's fire joined more than a dozen residents who are temporarily homeless after a fire on Monday raged through a five-story building in the complex on Americana Drive.

That fire, which investigators say started when workers installing a shower head accidentally ignited insulation, destroyed three apartments and damaged at least 12 others. Fire officials estimated the damage in the first fire at about $250,000.

Lonergan said the fires were not related, and that they were both accidental.

The only similarity appears to be the way the staff at Bernstein Management Corp. reacted. Immediately after the first fire, the company set up a hospitality suite in the leasing office, offering food and relocation help, including furnished apartments elsewhere in the complex.

"We've got cats, dogs, birds - the whole nine yards going right now," said manager Leslie Caffey. "Some of the pets are in the men's bathroom. Our bookkeeper took some home."

Caffey said the company's headquarters in Washington is helping.

"They're not just giving lip service," said Caffey, as a resident asked if she could add her cat to the menagerie in the bathroom. "They're really helping us get it done."

Added Red Cross staffer Ken Smallwood: "I'm astonished. I've never seen a management company do as much as they're doing."

Trudi Barris, 84, had to leave her three-bedroom, $1,300-a-month apartment after Monday's fire, and she has frequently been in the leasing office - sometimes using the staff phone for long-distance calls.

The staff has let her daughter, who is visiting from Spain, into the apartment to retrieve medicine.

Barris, a 20-year resident, said she doesn't like being homeless but is trying to stay positive. Management has plans to paint and clean her place, and she expects to be home soon.

"When I go back," she said, "it will be like a new apartment."

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