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Fire burns 5 apartments, laundry on E. Main Street 10 residents escape morning blaze unhurt; damage put at $500,000


Ten people, including three children, escaped unharmed early yesterday from a raging three-alarm fire that destroyed a coin-operated laundry and five apartments in downtown Westminster.

The blaze, which broke out about 4: 45 a.m., started in a first-floor electrical panel and spread upward through the walls and across the attic of the two-story building in the 200 block of E. Main St., said Rocco J. Gabriele, state fire marshal. Damage was estimated at $500,000, Gabriele said.

Four of the brick-and-wood building's five apartments were occupied, and all tenants had escaped unharmed before firefighters arrived. The Westminster Launderama was closed.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

"The fire spread rapidly because older buildings have no fire-stop walls," said Capt. Bob Schultz, incident commander from Westminster Fire Engine & Hose Company No. 1. The structure had been rebuilt after a fire in 1959.

Trapped by heavy smoke and flames, tenant Vernon Odom, his girlfriend, Darlene Naill, and his son escaped from a second-story apartment with the help of a friend, who had retrieved Odom's ladder from his truck parked behind the building.

"I got down on the floor and crawled back to the front [of the apartment], kicked out that side window and started yelling for help," Odom said, pointing to a corner of the blackened structure. "I saw one of my friends out on the street and yelled for him to get my ladder from my truck."

More than 100 firefighters from 11 volunteer companies brought the blaze under control in three hours.

Red Cross workers assisted the four homeless families with shelter, food, clothing and medical needs as firefighters hosed hot spots in the building throughout the day, concluding operations at 4 p.m.

Information about the other tenants was not available.

Odom credited his friend, Tom Ellmer, with saving his family.

Odom, 46, said he was awakened by the smell of smoke and found the only exit -- through the kitchen to the rear of the apartment -- was blocked by thick, heavy smoke that nearly caused him to pass out.

While Ellmer ran for the ladder, Naill called 911, he said. Odom helped her and his son, Matthew, 7, down the ladder. He followed, after trying in vain to save the family cat.

"I'm a roofer, and I could have jumped, but I don't think my wife and son could have gotten out without the ladder," he said.

They lost everything except for the clothes they were wearing and some collectibles, which firefighters later retrieved.

"I haven't lost my faith," Odom said. "God's been good to me, and that's the most important thing."

But Odom was angry at what might have happened.

"If I had not had a ladder and my friend had not been there, have no doubt that we would have been killed," he said. "There was no exit out of the apartment."

Although the Odom apartment had only one exit, it might not have violated building safety codes, said Allen J. Gosnell, a spokesman for the fire marshal's office.

Building code changes are not retroactive, Gosnell said.

Odom said Ellmer and another passer-by went to the apartment next door after helping him, Naill and Matthew get out.

"They woke up a man in the first-floor [apartment], and he went upstairs to help a lady and her two kids," Odom said. "One of the men kicked the door in and got them out the front."

Odom said a man living in a rear apartment behind Launderama walked out.

Ellmer said he was thankful he was riding his bicycle so early and could help Odom. "God puts people in the right place at the right time," he said. "Things are replaceable, but people are not."

Russ Watkins and Eric Weaver are leasing the property with the option to purchase from Ray Owens. Owens said he purchased Launderama and the apartments eight years ago. The building was insured. Weaver said he and Watkins "probably would rebuild."

More than 100,000 gallons of water poured on the open roof flowed down the steps of the laundry and sprayed from the broken windows. Next door, at 269 E. Main St., firefighters had to pump 5 feet of water from the basement.

The third alarm was sounded within an hour of the initial call, Gosnell said.

Traffic on Main Street will be blocked from North Church Street to Manchester Avenue until construction crews tear down the building's front and east walls, said Lt. Randy Barnes, spokesman for Westminster police.

"An engineering consultant hired by the insurance company determined the walls were unstable," Barnes said. "They will try to salvage the house portion of the building" beside the laundry.

He said barricades would be used to keep pedestrians away from the building, and that officers would remain at the scene until demolition is complete.

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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