Double fatal fire prompts county to push safety


A faint smell of smoke lingered in the air and a pile of debris lay in the front yard, cordoned off by yellow tape, where two men died early last Sunday in the first double fatal fire in Carroll County in many years.

Richard Hamilton Stewart, 78, and his son, Richard Hamilton Stewart II, 51, died when fire swept through their home in the 6200 block of Long Meadow Drive in Eldersburg.

Across the street from the boarded up brick rancher, firefighters, county and state officials gathered Wednesday afternoon to try to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again in the county.

"We're here because we find something completely unacceptable, and that is a double fatality, which is very unusual in Carroll County," said Bill Rehkopf, public information officer for the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department.

"If what we do in this neighborhood blitz saves one life, it will be worth it," said Rehkopf, who couldn't even remember the last time a double fatal fire occurred in the county.

Maryland State Fire Marshal William Barnard said the fatal fire brought this year's total fire-related deaths in Maryland to 31.

Since Jan. 1, 1997, there have been 10 fire deaths, including the Stewarts, in Carroll County, he said.

"The loss of any life in a fire situation is unacceptable because we know it is preventable," Barnard said. "Seventy to 80 percent of fires occur in the house, where people feel they are most safe."

He urged all homeowners to have a working smoke detector on every level of their home. Christine Flanagan, Sykesville's fire prevention officer, said officials weren't sure if the Stewarts had smoke detectors in their home.

Wednesday's fire safety blitz was organized "to make sure people in the Sykesville area have smoke alarms that work," she said.

Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Mark Bilger said his office had concluded its investigation of the house, but were waiting for autopsy results on the Stewarts, which could take a month, before releasing a cause of the fire.

"We don't suspect any foul play or illegal activity," Bilger said.

County Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr., also a longtime volunteer firefighter, told the group that this tragedy "is the kind of thing we enacted the residential sprinkler ordinance for last summer. This is the kind of thing we want to prevent."

Jones cited two instances since then in the county where a sprinkler system put out a fire before it caused serious damage or personal injury.

"I'd like to see every fire department in Carroll County go out in the community and make sure everybody has a working smoke alarm," Jones said.

Although they couldn't visit every home in the area, the Sykesville firefighters did canvass about 100 homes in the Long Meadows community Wednesday, knocking on doors, talking to residents and making note of homes they had to return to because there was no answer.

They offered packets of fire safety materials with information on sprinkler systems and smoke alarms, and a book of games and puzzles for children; red plastic fire helmets for the kids; and free smoke alarms and batteries, donated by Home Depot, for those who needed them.

Rehkopf said the department gave away nearly 20 smoke alarms and a number of batteries.

Across the street from the burned house, Catherine Herche, 82, had a smoke alarm that she was waiting for her son to install. Fire Capt. Robbie Ruch checked a fire alarm in the kitchen that Herche wasn't sure still worked.

Ruch explained that the fire alarm was hard-wired into the electrical system and if the power went out, the alarm wouldn't work. He gave her a battery for her new smoke alarm and suggested it be put in the hallway outside the bedroom, along with additional alarms in other areas of the split-level house.

Herche asked the firefighters if the Stewarts had a back door they could have escaped from and noted that she had one.

"It's good that you're thinking of ways to get out," Kristi Gable told her. Gable, as a member of the Public Education, Relations and Marketing Committee, joined the firefighters in their neighborhood canvass.

"It was great that you could come and do this," Herche told the firefighters.

Although the firefighters covered only a small part of their response area, Rehkopf stressed that anyone in need of a smoke alarm can call them at 410-795-9311, or stop by the firehouse on Route 32 at Freedom Avenue.

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