A two-alarm fire displaced more than 170 people from an East Baltimore apartment building on Easter, Fire Department officials said.
Flames erupted from the eighth floor of the Lanvale Towers at 1300 East Lanvale St. in Oliver at about 3:30 p.m., fire department spokeswoman Blair Adams said. The fire spread to multiple apartments and sent thick black smoke billowing high into the sky that could be seen from across the city and beyond.
It took firefighters about an hour to bring the blaze under control, Adams said.
No one was injured, she said. Five residents whose apartments were extensively damaged were expected to be displaced for an indeterminate period. The building's management was coordinating short-term housing for the rest. The American Red Cross said it opened a shelter and is providing other resources for those who need it.
No residents were being allowed to re-enter the building Sunday night due to smoke inhalation concerns, Adams said. A Lanvale Towers official declined to comment Sunday.
"Our hearts definitely go out to the residents," Adams said.
One Lanvale Towers resident, Atoya Benbow, 35, was fixing herself a plate of macaroni and cheese and green beans at an Easter celebration at her in-laws' house in Reisterstown when she got the call. She answered and heard her neighbor's frantic voice: "Are you here? The whole eighth floor is on fire."
Benbow froze. That was her floor.
"I put the plate down and we walked out the door," she said.
Inside the smoky hallway, residents ran up and down the hall knocking on doors to alert their neighbors.
Veronica Berry lives on the eighth floor. She said many of her neighbors, weary of false alarms, ignored the fire alarm when it went off.
"If it wasn't for me coming to the door, we'd still be in there," said Berry, 56. "The fire alarm goes on so much we stopped coming downstairs."
Yolanda Harbell, 46, of Belair-Edison, saw the smoke pouring out of the towers. She stopped her Jeep Trailblazer in the middle of East Lafayette Avenue to call her sister, Waltinna Noakes, 55, who lives on the third floor.
"The whole thing was just black," Harbell said. "I had to stop and make sure my sister was all right."
Noakes had just walked outside, on her way to Easter festivities at her cousin's house in Yale Heights.
"I just came down off the elevator," she said. "It wasn't five minutes before."
Harbell said she saw someone banging on an upper window of the building with a flashlight to get firefighters' attention. The person hung what appeared to be a shirt from the window to mark her location, Harbell said.
Valarie Brown, 53, was doing laundry on the lobby level of the building when firefighters arrived. Like others, she initially figured the alarm was a prank.
"This time it was really a fire," she said. "I'm glad everybody got out safe. We just have to pray and see."
Sharde Sample, 23, who lives on the eighth floor, stood at the scene holding a two-year-old in her arms. The toddler wore a white Easter bunny costume, complete with fluffy ears. They had planned to attend the carnival at Eastpoint Mall with the toddler's mother. Those plans were put on hold while they waited to hear the extent of the fire damage and ask when they could get back inside.
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Neighbors are used to minor incidents in the building, she said, but nothing that would've prepared them for the fire Sunday.
"It always be little stuff," she said. "Never this bad."
City Councilman Robert Stokes, a Democrat who represents the district, said he noticed the fire while driving through the neighborhood just before 4 p.m. He parked, walked over to find out what happened and consoled some of the residents on the sidewalk.
Stokes said he'd heard the complaints about frequent fire alarms lulling residents into not evacuating for an actual fire.
"It was very fortunate that nobody in there got hurt," he said.