The cries of a toddler saved the lives of a Harford Count family early today, moments before a fast-moving, four-alarm fire raced through their three-story townhouse in the Edgewater section of Edgewood.
"If he hadn't gotten me up," Steven Freeland, father of 19-month-old Shane Freeland, said today, "it's real scary to think what would have happened. The way that fire moved, we'd have all been dead."
"He climbed out of his crib and came in and woke us up," Freeland said. "He was saying 'da-da' and crying. He usually doesn't get up in the middle of the night but it was the smoke and noise that got him up."
Freeland, 21, said he saw the red and orange glow of the flames spreading through the living room downstairs, and he and his fiancee, Patricia Gleason, 19, grabbed Shane and the toddler's 5-month-old brother, Patrick, "and we were out the front door as quick as we could get outside.
"The fire was crackling and whooshing as we were running down the steps," said Freeland, who works as a home remodeler with his family's business and has owned his home for about two years.
Gleason said that "within 30 seconds to a minute after we made it outside, the smoke just erupted through the back and front of the house. It was so quick, the smoke was so black."
The couple spoke from the home of Freeland's brother in Joppatowne.
"If it weren't for the child crying and alerting his father, we would have been dealing today with a family that was wiped out," Deputy State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said.
The family's townhouse was destroyed and four other homes were damaged in the four-alarm fire. Damage was estimated at $500,000. Nineteen people were displaced.
Thomas said the fire was discovered after the 19-month-old wandered into the second floor bedroom of his father and his father's fiancee shortly after 1 a.m.
The father comforted Shane, picked him up and carried him back to his bedroom, which the toddler shared with his brother.
"It was then that the father smelled smoke coming from the room downstairs and awakened Gleason and Patrick," Thomas said.
According to Thomas, the house was equipped with two smoke detectors, one powered by electricity and the other by batteries. Neither was working, Thomas said.
Within minutes of the first alarm at 1:12 a.m., firefighting equipment from seven stations in Harford County and two from Baltimore County were dispatched to the 1700 block of Judy Way, a street in Edgewater Village with about 40 townhouses.
Thomas said the fire quickly went to four alarms as it burned the Freeland townhouse at 1754 Judy Way and spread to four adjacent homes, forcing 15 people from those homes. One firefighter was slightly injured and treated at the scene.
Jerome Nelson, a resident of 1747 Judy Way, said he was awakened by his wife, Rachel, shortly after 1 a.m. as the fire broke out.
Nelson, who lives across the street from the burned townhouses, said 1754 Judy Way was destroyed and heavy fire entered the dwellings on either side.
"The one house is really gutted and the front street is full of fire engines and people watching the fire," said Nelson as he looked out his bedroom window in the midst of the action.
Vicki Buljat, 30, who lived in one of the damaged units, returned to her home this morning to find it condemned. She collects photos of elephants and elephant figurines. The one thing she was able to salvage was a large, framed color photo of a bull elephant.
"I lost jewelry, money, everything," said Buljat, who works at a tax service. She lived in her home alone for the past seven years.
Buljat said she was awaiting word from her insurance company about where she will stay temporarily.
A neighbor, who declined to give his name, said his home also was damaged extensively but not yet condemned. "I can't stay there," he said, adding that his home had smoke, water and fire damage. He, too, was awaiting word from his insurance company about where he will stay.
Buljat and others who live in the Watergate North townhouse development were relieved that no one was injured and that neighbors alerted each other quickly.
The Red Cross aided fire victims at the scene and attempted to find temporary shelter for them. Some of those displaced were being cared for by friends and relatives who live in the Edgewood area.
Fran Sakowski, 41, a nursing assistant who lives near the damaged homes, said, "I have no doubt that the people in this area will come to the aid of these people."
She said neighbors already were discussing how to help out, including providing clothes for children. The community association has discussed soliciting donations.
Four years ago, Sakowski's son, Stan, now 13, was hit by a car while riding his bike and was in a coma for a while. She said neighbors helped her family greatly, providing food and care for her four children.
Rita Johnson, 39, who also lives near the damaged homes with her three children, said, she was relieved that nobody was seriously hurt. "You can replace a home but you can't replace a life," she said.
Johnson, who drives a school bus for the county, said, "Them flames were just jumping out. It seemed like it was daytime. You could feel the heat."
Thomas said the fire apparently began on a sofa in the living room of the Freeland home. He said investigators from the fire marshal's office remained on the scene today to determine the cause of the blaze.
Thomas said 120 firefighters from Joppa, Aberdeen, Abingdon, Bel Air, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fallston and Jarrettsville, along with Baltimore County units from Kingsville and Cowenton, battled the fire until it was declared under control shortly before 2 a.m.