Smoke blamed for fire deaths

Victims, 5 members of a family, identified

response defended

January 20, 2007|By Josh Mitchell, Mary Gail Hare and Nick Shields | Josh Mitchell, Mary Gail Hare and Nick Shields,Sun Reporters

The first call came into emergency dispatchers at 10:17 a.m.

Ten more followed in rapid succession as witnesses spotted the smoke billowing from the 100-year-old wooden house.

Within minutes, the first emergency worker was on the scene. Timothy Rumbaugh, a Harford County sheriff's deputy, found neighbors outside the house who said they had heard screams coming from inside. He began a frenzied, ultimately futile, rescue effort.

"There was no way that anyone that was on that second floor could be alive," said Rumbaugh, who managed to pull one man out from just inside the back door, only to learn later that he died at the hospital. "It was that hot and that intense."

By the end of the day Thursday, four other bodies had been recovered from the house, each a victim of what is believed to be the deadliest fire in Harford County history. No cause or origin has been determined.

The victims were a married couple and three of their grandchildren who lived in the house.

Dead are Annette Milford Shropshire, 47; Derek Danna White, 3, Donald Terreance White, 4, and Jhaniyah Imani Davis, 9 months.

Shropshire's husband, Jerome R. Shropshire, 72, was the man Rumbaugh had found unconscious near a back door and who died at the hospital.

All the victims died of smoke inhalation and thermal burns, said W. Faron Taylor, spokesman for the Maryland State Fire Marshal, which investigates fires.

"The level of carbon monoxide in the blood of all five victims was so high, indicating they were most likely unconscious by the time the heat started to affect them," Taylor said.

Yesterday, fire officials defended themselves against criticism about how quickly they responded to the fire.

"There was no way for anyone to survive, but firefighters made a valiant attempt anyway," said Rich Gardner, spokesman for the Harford County Fire and Emergency Services Organization. He said a review will be made of the response time.

In postings to a forum at TheWatchDesk.com, people identifying themselves as local volunteer firefighters complained that the time between the 911 call and the dispatch of fire crews was five minutes.

"This is my opinion and my opinion only, but there's nothing that should've caused a 5 minute delay in dispatching a dwelling fire with rescue," one entry read.

The Emergency Operations Center, however, said a passing motorist called to report the fire shortly before 10:18 a.m. Susan Collins, an EOC spokeswoman, said the caller gave a wrong address. The call was forwarded to Fire Dispatch a little over a minute later and, after the correct address was determined, the call was dispatched shortly before 10:21 a.m. Collins declined to provide additional details about the process because the fire is under investigation.

At 10:22 a.m., the first responders - the ambulance unit from the Abingdon company eight-tenths of a mile from the home - were on the scene, fire officials said. Fire trucks from Joppa-Magnolia were next, with Bel Air arriving at 10:33 a.m.

More than 65 firefighters from six companies, all but one a volunteer company, responded to the fire, which was already pouring from the windows.

By the time paramedics arrived at the house, Rumbaugh, a corporal with the sheriff's office, and Robert Burgess, a deputy first class, were already there.

A woman and two men were standing at the driveway and staring at the blaze. They told the officers they had heard screams coming from upstairs.

Rumbaugh looked for the front door, but there was so much smoke that he couldn't even make out where it was.

He and Burgess ran to the back of the house, but a door to an extension was locked. Rumbaugh threw his weight up against the door with no success.

Then a heavyset man - Rumbaugh is not sure whether he was a paramedic - appeared behind them, told them to get out of the way and kicked the door in.

"Once the smoke billowed out, I could see a body laying on the floor," Rumbaugh said.

He appeared to be an older man and was wearing thermal long underwear, Rumbaugh said. His face was covered in soot; his eyes were open. Rumbaugh could see soot in his mouth.

Rumbaugh started yelling at him - "Is there anyone in the house? Is there anyone in the house?"

No response.

Paramedics tried performing CPR on the man, and he was taken away in an ambulance.

About 30 minutes after Burgess and Rumbaugh got to the house, they were standing in the front yard, making sure that no one got to close to the house as firefighters worked the scene.

Then, they saw a woman running down the street, screaming, "My babies! My babies!"

Rumbaugh turned to Burgess.

"I said, `Rob, look. That's Mom. She's coming at us.'

"Rob and I just stopped her and grabbed her and held her and hugged her," he said. "We put her into an ambulance. I'm not going to let her go to the scene. You don't want her to see that."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com nicholas.shields@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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