Fire displaces more than a dozen families

No injuries are reported after blaze damages Columbia apartment complex


A three-alarm fire in the Avalon Symphony Glen apartments in Columbia displaced 18 families before dawn yesterday, leaving many out in the cold in their pajamas with no identification or possessions.

No injuries were reported. Avalon Bay Communities and the Red Cross said they are assisting victims with food, clothing and shelter.

"We didn't hear anything," said Gautam Puranik, 30, who moved into the 18-year-old complex less than two weeks ago. "Then we heard police sirens, but we thought it was a robbery until an officer banged on the door and shouted `Fire!' and told us to evacuate now."

The 4 a.m. blaze caused about $2 million in damage, and fire investigators did not know the starting point or the cause, Bill Mould, spokesman for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said yesterday. The fire was under control within one hour of the firefighters' arrival. Crews from four neighboring counties assisted.

Fire officials said the building was up to code but did not have a sprinkler system. It was built before Howard County required sprinklers in multiple-family dwellings. If the units are rebuilt, the developer will be required to install sprinklers.

"We're focusing on urgent, short-term needs now and will then try to figure out a long-term plan," said Dirk Herrman, chief marketing officer for Alexandria, Va.-based Avalon. "This is a significant fire. These apartments aren't going to come back in a few weeks."

Residents expressed concern that police officers, not smoke alarms, alerted them to the blaze. Mould said that if the fire started on the second floor, it could take some time for apartments on lower floors to fill with enough smoke to set off alarms.

"When I was there, the alarms were going off," Mould said.

He said flames were shooting from the roof, meaning that the source likely was the second floor.

Mould said the fire spread rapidly across the roofline of the two adjoining addresses, 10340 and 10338 Broken Land Parkway. Onlookers watched as at least two firefighters sprayed water on top of the building.

Once the drenched building stopped smoldering, firefighters helped residents recover their belongings. One firefighter climbed a ladder to retrieve a 19th-century violin. The violin case was damaged, but the instrument was unharmed.

A firefighter retrieved a passport for Jennifer Barratto, who stood outside. A firefighter later attempted to find her wallet and cell phone and her husband's laptop. The couple were trying to retrieve contact information for her husband's company, which was stored on the phone and computer.

"They don't know why he's not where he's supposed to be," she said.

From outside, Barratto could see her black leather office chair through the first-floor broken window. Water was dripping on it, and the seat was covered in woods chips and debris.

Firefighters had salvaged much of what they could, covering Barratto's valuables with a plastic tarp. The couple are here on a work visa from the Philippines, making their personal records all the more important.

"It's very dangerous in there," Barratto said. "I just need them to check for the important things."

Sun reporter Hanah Cho contributed to this article.

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