Reisterstown fire displaces residents

Senior citizens make it out of complex safely, but the building is uninhabitable


About 70 seniors and their pets -- including Coco, a 16-year-old mocha-colored poodle -- were evacuated from their homes yesterday after a morning fire tore through a Reisterstown apartment building and left the four-year-old structure uninhabitable.

More than 70 engines, ladder trucks and medic units from Baltimore and Carroll counties responded to the four-alarm blaze at the Meadows at Reisterstown, a four-story senior citizen building a few blocks from Reisterstown's historic downtown.

Four residents were taken to area hospitals with minor injuries, including smoke inhalation and complaints of chest pain, said Elise Armacost, Baltimore County Fire Department communications director. All occupants made it out safely, she said.

Several residents were aided by a passing motorist who saw flames as he was driving on Interstate 795. He pulled his car off the highway, jumped a fence and made 10 trips inside the burning building, guiding senior citizens to the safety of an adjacent building in the small complex, residents said.

Fire officials had not determined by late yesterday what caused the fire, which started in a top-floor unit and spread along the roof, Armacost said. One portion of the building collapsed after being consumed by flames. County officials were restricting access until a structural engineer inspected the building.

State property records show that the apartments, owned by Homes for Reisterstown Limited Partnership, were built in 2001 and are valued for tax purposes at $5.4 million. A damage estimate was not available yesterday.

Officials with Homes for America, an Annapolis-based nonprofit development company that is the parent of the partnership, could not be reached for comment.

While many residents were picked up by family members and friends, many were inside temporary offices of Red Cross Disaster Services, waiting to find lodging yesterday afternoon.

Sixty-four of the building's 80 apartments were occupied, officials said, and Red Cross workers were also helping residents replace prescription medications. Homeless residents would be provided apartments elsewhere in the Meadows complex or sent to hotels, Armacost said.

Many senior citizens were worried about the safety of the dogs and cats they keep as companions, and firefighter teams rescued several animals from the apartments.

One of them was Coco the poodle, who scampered around the landscaping as firefighters climbed ladder trucks and continued to spray water at midday yesterday, the acrid smell of smoke hanging in the air.

The fire was first reported at 7:50 a.m. and was declared contained a little more than two hours later.

Coco's owner, Dorothy Bailey, 75, was escorted out of her apartment when the fire alarms sounded, but the dog stayed behind and was later feared lost, said Evora McDuffie of West Baltimore, Bailey's daughter.

McDuffie said that Coco is a trained assistance dog for Bailey, who has lupus. Firefighters later went searching for the pet and found him in the bedroom. "He went under the bed," McDuffie said. "He held his breath."

Edith Pearsall, 76, a retired home health care worker, said the fire alarm woke her. She grabbed her coat, slipped on shoes and headed for the stairs. Residents evacuating with her "were nervous, but they were orderly," Pearsall said.

Walking arm-in-arm with neighbor Barbara Blackstone, gazing at the charred timbers of the apartment building's gabled roof, Pearsall said she wasn't sure when she could reclaim her belongings. "They won't let us in," she said.

Firefighters used a list of building residents to search all apartments and make sure everyone made it to safety. They were aided early on by at least one passer-by.

Barbara Adelman, 72, was retrieving her newspaper from the second apartment building in the Meadows complex when she saw flames and heard commotion. Soon, a rescuer was guiding residents -- two at a time -- into the lobby of her building.

Adelman said the rescuer told her he had been driving home on I-795 from his night-shift railroad job and saw the flames. He parked his car on the highway shoulder and scrambled down an embankment. He immediately lent a hand.

The Good Samaritan made trip after trip inside the building -- about 10 in all -- Adelman said, guiding residents to safety.

By the end, he was wheezing and unable to catch his breath. The man who appeared to be in his 40s identified himself only as Gerry.

"Gerry's a hero. I think he's a hero," Adelman said. "He said, `I did what I had to do.'"

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