Woman dies in Baltimore fire as number of fatal fires continues to rise

  • Dec. 5 fire at 4400 block of Marble Hall Road
Dec. 5 fire at 4400 block of Marble Hall Road (Sun photo by Jeffrey F. Bill )
December 05, 2013|By Carrie Wells, The Baltimore Sun

The death of a woman pulled from her blazing apartment Thursday prompted criticism from city fire union officials about recent company closures and pledges from officials to step up safety campaigns.

Firefighters found the woman unconscious in her Northeast Baltimore apartment after it caught fire early Thursday. She was taken to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Officials did not release her identity.

Ten days earlier, another woman died in a fire in the same part of the city.

The number of fire deaths in Baltimore has spiked this year after three years of declines brought it to a low of 12 last year.

The city has recorded 19 fire deaths this year. The cause of the woman's death Thursday has not been determined.

Rick Hoffman, president of the city firefighters union, said the spike raises concerns about the city's decision to close two fire companies last year.

Hoffman said it would be difficult to pin any of the deaths on the closures, but he added that the city needs to revisit the money-saving move.

"We are bare-bones and can't function with anything less than what we have right now," Hoffman said.

Statewide, fire deaths are also up. Thursday's death would bring the number to 63 so far this year, Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce D. Bouch said. That's up from 48 during the same period last year and 53 for all of 2012.

The number of deaths fluctuates from year to year but has fallen from 34 in 2007 and 88 in 1984, the highest since the department started keeping track in the 1930s.

Fire officials said the deaths this year underscore the need to increase safety campaigns. Baltimore gives away smoke detectors that are installed by firefighters, and Maryland recently required sprinklers in all new homes.

"Over the past few decades, through better engineering and better public education, we've been doing better," said Ian Brennan, the Baltimore Fire Department spokesman. "But there's more to do."

Residents of the eight-unit garden apartment building in the 4400 block of Marble Hall Road were awakened about 2:30 a.m. by a neighbor who knocked on their doors, telling them to get out.

All but one of them were able to get out safely as arriving firefighters called for a second alarm. It took firefighters an hour to bring the blaze under control.

One firefighter suffered minor injuries. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Dennis Johnson, who lives below the second-floor apartment where the fire is believed to have started, said he heard smoke alarms go off after he ran outside in his pajamas. Then he started to worry about others who might have been left behind.

"I was more concerned for my neighbor upstairs," he said, adding that he believed that woman was the one who died. Another neighbor "knocked on her door and no one answered, so that had me pretty worried."

Johnson, 52, said many of his belongings were destroyed. Hours later, he said, water was still pouring into his apartment from upstairs. "I'm still trying to pull myself together and see if I can get my life back on track," he said.

Marble Hall Gardens manager Maria Thoericht said the building was condemned after the fire. Residents picked through smoke- and water-damaged furniture, clothing, appliances and paintings piled in front of the complex for anything they could salvage and spoke with Red Cross workers about temporary housing and supplies.

Johannes Mollel, 37, whose home was also damaged in the fire, said the woman who died had lived in the complex for a few years and "talked with everyone."

Johnson described the woman as friendly and said she had a small dog.

Six fire deaths this year resulted from careless smoking, Brennan said. Two were deemed homicides: men whose bodies were found in a burning Mount Vernon building. Four were the result of electrical wiring problems.

Thursday's fire and the one that killed a 33-year-old woman in the Frankford neighborhood took place within a few blocks of fire stations.

The Fire Department has made a recent push to increase the number of free fire alarms it distributes to city residents. Officials credit one such alarm with getting a family out safely in a fire earlier this week.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said the decision to close fire companies was an improvement over the old system, in which closures were rotated throughout the system. The rotating closures drew criticism from firefighters, who had to move to unfamiliar neighborhoods.

Hoffman said he was upset that the previous drop in deaths had been part of the justification used to close two fire companies.

"I'm not going to play God and say if you close the unit it'll have a direct affect on a fire death, but we've been cut," he said.

Brennan said that two of the fire deaths this year — one in January in the 6600 block of Hartwait St. and one in the 1700 block of N. Broadway in March — were near East Baltimore's Truck 15, one of the companies that closed. None was near Engine 11 in Southeast Baltimore, the other company closed.

But he said firetrucks arrived on the scenes of the two East Baltimore fires within four minutes, the national standard.

"I don't see a direct connection," Brennan said of the decision to close the companies and the rise in deaths.

The average time it took for an engine or firetruck to arrive at the scene of a fire in fiscal year 2013 was 2 minutes and 30 seconds, Brennan said, adding that he did not have data available for previous fiscal years.



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