In a dramatic scene played out before a lunchtime crowd in downtown Baltimore yesterday, firefighters rescued more than two dozen office workers trapped on a fire escape after heavy smoke from a fire forced them to flee a high-rise building.
The rickety fire escape at the rear of 16 S. Calvert St. would not extend the last 20 feet to the ground, requiring firefighters to coax the workers the rest of the way on a fire truck's aerial ladder.
"That was the scariest part, climbing down and trying to get onto the fire truck ladder," said Sharon A. Carpenter-Rose, 31, advertising service manager at Baltimore magazine, which has offices on the 10th floor of the 11-story building.
There were no injuries caused by the two-alarm blaze, but medics treated Ms. Carpenter-Rose at the scene for smoke inhalation.
"I feel a little jittery, a little woozy, I guess," said Ms. Carpenter-Rose, as she sat on a Redwood Street curb after making it to the street. "At the time you're going through something, it doesn't bother you, but after it's over, you say, 'Oh, my God.' "
Many of those workers on the fire escape -- including Ms. Carpenter-Rose and a co-worker who is eight months' pregnant -- were from the upper floors of the building and already had been stymied in their attempts to get out.
After winding their way up the building's sole staircase, which was quickly filling with dense black smoke, they found a locked fire door on the 11th floor that forced them to walk back down the stairs to the 10th floor and out to the fire escape.
"We were terrified, everyone, 25 of us, walking back and forth, saying, 'What do we do? What do we do?" said Molly K. Seerey, 25, Baltimore magazine's receptionist, who first heard the fire alarm and alerted co-workers on the intercom.
Fire officials said the blaze -- which drew 65 firefighters and 20 pieces of equipment -- had been intentionally set in an unoccupied office on the seventh floor, where some furniture and papers were stored. The arson, which caused an estimated $5,000 in property damage, was still under investigation.
The owner of the partially occupied building, Kenilworth Equities Properties Inc., will be cited under the city fire code for having an inoperable fire escape, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman.
Other possible fire code violations also were being investigated, Chief Torres said.
The company -- which is based in New York and owns about a dozen office and residential buildings in the city -- was cited in early 1992 for a minor malfunction in the fire alarm system, which was corrected just after it was reported, he said.
Barbara L. McGraw, Kenilworth's director of leasing in Baltimore, declined to comment yesterday.
Firefighters arriving at the building about 12:20 p.m. found smoke pouring from the seventh-floor windows of the structure -- the front of the building -- on the northwest corner of Calvert and Redwood streets.
The initial call to the Fire Department included reports of workers trapped on upper floors of the brick office building, once the headquarters of the now-defunct Old Court Savings and Loan Association.
"We had a lot of people in there that we were very concerned about," Chief Torres said.
Almost immediately, firefighters called for more equipment, which seemed to speed to the scene from all over, including the wrong way down one-way Calvert Street, snarling traffic in downtown's central business district for hours.
Hundreds of downtown office workers gathered to watch the drama unfold from behind fire lines on Calvert and Redwood streets as police kept onlookers back and rerouted traffic in yesterday's heat.
"It was actually a very minor fire, but it was a very smoky situation. Smoke was puffing from the seventh and eighth floors," Chief Torres said. "We were able to knock the fire down very quickly and get the people out safely."
Kate Hailstone, 29, a secretary at a law office on the eighth floor of the building, said she and other employees began to smell smoke pouring through the office.
Believing that the smoke was coming from their office, the workers "turned everything off and called the Fire Department."
When they realized the smoke was elsewhere in the building, the workers decided to go down the stairwell, but ran into "black, black smoke" so dense that they had to turn back.
"When we realized how serious it was, it was pretty terrifying," she said. "I freaked out for about 20 seconds. I thought 'Oh, My God.' "
Soon after the fire alarm went off -- with a faint clang that workers complained they could barely hear -- a controlled panic seemed to spread among those in the building.
'Hell with the lid off'
Smoke was filling the stairwell so quickly that firefighters urged workers to use the elevator -- contrary to the long-standing tenet to use the stairs in the event of fire.
One elevator stuffed full of workers made it from the 10th floor to the first floor, but other workers were left behind on the ninth and 10th floors, as the smoke thickened in the stairwell, forcing those workers up the stairs to the 11th floor.
"It was hell with the lid off," said Kathleen Renda, 24, a Baltimore magazine editorial assistant, describing the intensity of the smoke.
"The smoke in the stairways was like clouds of ink. You couldn't see below the 10th floor," said Merrill C. Witty, Baltimore magazine arts editor.
"It was fairly disorganized, but there was very little panic," said Ms. Carpenter-Rose. "We weren't trampling each other, but we were walking rather briskly from floor to floor to find a way out."
Once workers made it to the 11th floor, they found that the emergency door to the fire escape would not open.
"We were thinking about forcing the door, but we realized we had a door on our floor -- the 10th floor -- and that it was easier to go down again," said Ramsey W. Flynn, 36, managing editor of Baltimore magazine, whose employees made up the bulk of those on the fire escape.
Final 20 feet
Once on the fire escape, about 25 people made their way down the rear of the building only to find that the final section of ladder would not drop to the street. They remained on various levels along the fire escape for about 20 minutes before being rescued. Two women who were frightened by the height had to be led down by firefighters when they froze, clinging to the wall.
Among the calmest in the bunch was Sally A. Sounders, 31, Baltimore magazine's office manager, who is eight months' pregnant.
"When I figured it was a contained fire, I realized that our biggest threat was the smoke and that was traveling through the building slowly," Ms. Souders said matter-of-factly after descending the fire escape and aerial ladder.
"I guess I got most scared because Sally was eight months' pregnant and I kept thinking, 'We gotta get her out," said Ms. Carpenter-Rose. "I don't know how she got down those steep stairs of the fire escape, which were extremely steep; she can't even see her feet."