Three die in blaze at home on Shore

Three young adults and teen escape fire at estate in Easton

August 19, 2007|By Melissa Harris and Andrew A. Green | Melissa Harris and Andrew A. Green,Sun reporters

EASTON -- An early-morning fire fueled by high winds off the Miles River killed three of the seven young adults and teens staying at a 6,600-square-foot estate on the Eastern Shore, fire officials said yesterday.

By yesterday afternoon, two bodies had been recovered.

At evening, about a dozen people gathered across the street under an oak tree watching firefighters comb through ruins with their hands and shovels for the remains of the third victim.

Three of the survivors -- Rosemary Sharpe, 21, of College Park; Ashley McNerney, 21, of Rockville; and Tyler Graf, 20, of Annapolis -- jumped from a second-story window. The fourth, the 15-year-old daughter of the home's owners, ran down the stairs from her bedroom and out the front door, said Deputy State Fire Marshal Joseph G. Zurolo Jr.

The home's owners, Matthew and Margaret Fitzgerald, were out of town, and three of their children were in the home when firefighters received two 911 calls at 2:14 a.m. from cell phones on the property, Zurolo said.

He declined to identify the victims, who were in their teens or early 20s, or the 15-year-old survivor. Investigators were confident that one victim remained to be found, based upon interviews with all four survivors.

The 2 1/2 -story wood-frame riverfront home, called Gratitude on the Miles, sits about 75 yards from Arcadia Shores Circle behind a row of pine trees.

The Fitzgeralds had purchased a smaller home on the 3-acre lot in 2001, tore it down and built a new one, according to Zurolo and state tax records.

The family moved there in January.

The fire gutted the center of the house and incinerated all but two walls and some rafters in the left wing. The survivors escaped from the $2.1 million home's right wing, near the garage. The smoke detectors worked, according to Zurolo.

The house was so badly damaged that the remains do not offer a lot of clues as to where the victims were at the time the fire started, Zurolo said. The remains of the two victims who have been located were transported to the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore for autopsies and identification using dental records.

About 50 firefighters had the blaze under control in about an hour. There was no chance to send rescuers inside, Zurolo said.

"The survivors were not physically hurt, but how they're holding up mentally, that's another story," he said.

He said that investigators had not determined the origin or cause of the fire, and that all efforts were focused on finding the third victim's remains. Three search dogs were assisting fire investigators.

Someone had tied a helium balloon reading "Thinking of You" to the signpost at the end of the Fitzgeralds' driveway. A pot of flowers sat at the base of the post.

Kelsey Ronning, 18, stopped by the house yesterday afternoon to leave a bouquet. She said she worked with one of the victims at the Crab Claw Restaurant in St. Michaels.

"At work, we think they died trying to put the fire out," she said.

Matthew E. Fitzgerald works at the American College of Cardiology as senior director of science and quality, according to his profile on zoominfo.com. He has a doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins University.

"There's a tremendous number of cars out there -- a lot of the people are friends of the kids," said neighbor Richard Staiman. "They are a very popular family. They're well known in Easton and St. Michaels."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com andy.green@baltsun.com

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