A `typical' fire becomes deadly

Firefighter trapped in Baltimore rowhouse dies

October 11, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,sun reporter

It was the type of call that any seasoned Baltimore firefighter has been on a hundred times - an early morning rowhouse fire with people reportedly trapped inside.

The fire engines pulled up to the two-story brick home on South Macon Street 2 1/2 minutes after dispatchers received a half-dozen 911 calls. Three firefighters - one veteran and two rookies - lugged a hose through the front door and began searching though suffocating heat and smoke.

It didn't feel right.

"You've got to get this place open. It's hot in here," one firefighter barked into his radio after spending six or seven minutes inside. The on-scene chief ordered them to leave the house.

But the heat had reached at least 1,800 degrees, and the first floor burst into flames. The ceiling partially collapsed and the door jammed shut, trapping the firefighters inside.

The two rookies - each with less than a year of experience - were rescued and suffered serious burns. The third, Allan M. Roberts, with 19 years on the job, was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died of burns. The 40-year-old lived in Belcamp, Harford County, and had four children ages 1 1/2 to 13.

"We lost one of Baltimore's finest in the middle of the night last night," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "A young firefighter who died in what might have been a typical rowhome fire. But it was anything but typical."

The man and woman reported to be in the home had escaped by the time the first firefighters arrived at 514 S. Macon St. in Southeast Baltimore's Greektown neighborhood. The woman walked out of the house, and the man jumped from a second-floor window into the arms of his neighbors below. The man, whose name was not released, was being treated at a hospital last night.

The firefighters weren't as fortunate.

"When things went bad, we didn't get all of our people out in time," Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said at a news conference in front of the blackened home last night. "We've gone over and over and over it in our minds. What if? What if? That's what we've been battling with."

Roberts is the first city firefighter to die battling a blaze in more than a decade. Eric D. Schaefer was killed in September 1995 in the eight-alarm Clipper Industrial Park blaze when a granite wall fell at the 19th-century iron foundry in Woodberry, which was being used as artist studios.

Yesterday's fire, reported after 2 a.m., spread to the two adjacent rowhouses and was extinguished in about two hours. City and federal investigators said yesterday that they were trying to determine the cause. They do not think it was intentionally set.

The fire was unusually intense, Goodwin said. Old paneling and dry wooden materials inside acted as kindling, fueling the fire. The home was built in 1920.

As the firefighters in the house were retreating, Goodwin said, there was a "flashover," a firefighter's term for a situation in which the heat generated by a fire is so great that it causes everything near it to give off flammable gases and burst into flames.

"The interior heat builds and builds, and the interior reaches a flash point," Goodwin said.

Theodore G. Saunders, the city's fire marshal, likened a "flash- over" to what happens to a piece of paper near a campfire. If the fire creates enough heat, he said, the paper will burn when it gets near the fire. The same phenomenon occurs with furniture, paneling and carpeting, Saunders said.

Goodwin said flashovers are common, particularly in older homes.

"As sophisticated as our department has become, sometimes things go wrong," Goodwin said. "Things like that happen."

Fire inspectors are reviewing radio transmissions from the scene. They know that there was a call for a retreat but are not sure what caused the flashover. It could have been the partial collapse of the ceiling, or the collapse might have helped spark the flashover.

The force of the flashover blew the front door shut, and the hose became jammed in the door, Goodwin said. Firefighters outside the home struggled to push the door open, while the men inside tripped over each other as they tried to escape the heat.

"It is not a ballet when we fight fires." Goodwin said.

Firefighters outside the house finally punched a hole in the door and rescued Brandon Mattox and James Butler, and carried out Roberts. About 20 minutes later, part of the roof collapsed.

Mattox and Butler suffered second-degree burns on their arms and were rushed to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"They both had life-altering burns," Goodwin said. Mattox was in the burn ward yesterday, and Butler had been released.

City fire inspectors and federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who join in investigations of fatal fires in the city, spent yesterday sifting through debris and stabilizing the home. They blocked off the entrance with yellow tape and were to return today to search for more clues.

Saunders, the fire marshal, said some of the metal inside the house became so hot that it melted.

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