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'Oh God, I don't know what to do. We can't see'; 30-story tower burns; 1 dead, $3 million loss

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is the worst nightmare for those living in a high-rise apartment building: a fire halfway up a 30-story tower, choking hallways with smoke. Flames blowing out windows. No means of escape.

For hundreds of residents trapped for hours in the Charles Center Tower, yesterday's blaze was all too real and all too terrifying.

"Oh God, oh God, I don't know what to do. We can't see out of here," a man on the 16th floor screamed to a 911 operator as flames licked at his window.

The fire, in which a 72-year-old woman died, created hours of drama and heroics. Eight firefighters were lowered by rope from a helicopter to reach 20 tenants huddled on the roof and to help those trapped on the upper floors.

Squads of firefighters surrounded the building, one of two apartment towers there, and sprayed tons of water from the street as dozens of their colleagues ran up 15 flights of stairs to rescue occupants and extinguish flames.

But frightened residents of the south tower, awakened in the dead of night by a blaring fire alarm, jammed 911 lines with 413 calls, pleading for help. Dispatchers spent 90 minutes with some, calming them and persuading them not to jump.

A 22-year-old named Rebecca, barely able to breathe, sputtered a prayer over the emergency line: "Thank you for the life you've allowed me to live. Lord, I love you, I love you so much, and I want to be with you more than anything."

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. recalled later: "What we saw could have been a real-life towering inferno."

When firefighters arrived, they found people hanging out of windows screaming for help. Some waved white bedsheets and lighted lamps to help rescuers find and rescue them. Police officers shouted through bullhorns to ease their fear.

The rescuers, wearing 70 pounds of equipment, climbed to the 15th floor to get to the residents, from babies asleep in their cribs to elderly people who use wheelchairs. In all, 450 people live in the tower.

The dead woman was identified as Johncie Alberta Montgomery, who lived with her daughter, Janet Montgomery, in a two-bedroom apartment on the 25th floor. When the fire broke out, Janet Montgomery got her mother dressed, and they headed out the door.

Said the dead woman's son, Richard Montgomery: "In the stairway, my mother's legs gave way and she got scared. Janet left to get help. When she returned, her mother had apparently gone into cardiac arrest, and a neighbor pulled her into an apartment to administer CPR."

Yesterday's blaze was the second this week at a downtown building; on Monday, fire burned out the fifth floor of the seven-story Knickerbocker office building at East Lexington Street and Guilford Avenue.

Both buildings lacked sprinklers, which were not required because the structures were built before current fire codes took effect in 1981. Fire officials said damage in both fires would have been minimal had sprinklers been installed.

Most Charles Center Tower tenants were allowed to return to their homes yesterday; city housing officials condemned floors 15 to 18, though the 14th floor also had significant damage. Building management said that other apartments in the 210-unit high-rise had smoke and water damage and that renovations had begun last night.

A phalanx of workers descended on the scene. The Red Cross turned the Tremont Plaza hotel at St. Paul and Saratoga streets into a disaster center. The center will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today.

Permanently displaced residents were moved to other buildings run by Southern Management Corp., which owns 65 apartment complexes in Maryland and Virginia.

Fire officials said they were amazed at the low number of casualties, which included nine injuries. It took 170 firefighters just over two hours to extinguish the blaze, which caused an estimated $3 million in damages.

The fire was blamed on a discarded cigarette that ignited a couch in Apartment 1501. Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said the occupant tried to smother the fire with a blanket, which also caught fire.

Then the resident did exactly the wrong thing: He opened his window. Torres said oxygen fed the flames, which engulfed the living room and quickly spread to the rest of the floor and to the ones above and below.

The man, whom fire officials declined to name, escaped unharmed.

The fire was first reported at 1: 22 a.m. and went to eight alarms, drawing fire engines from throughout the city and virtually all of Baltimore's 18 ambulances.

Officials described it as the most horrific high-rise fire in at least 30 years. The closest comparison was a 1977 fire at the 40-story USF&G; building in which a firefighter died. That fire occurred in an empty office tower.

Yesterday, many residents said they reacted slowly to the fire because of several false fire alarms in the past two weeks.

"I was studying, and the alarm went off," said Gary Holt, 25, a dentistry student at the University of Maryland who lives on the 14th floor. "My wife said, 'Hey, I'm sleeping. Go see what it is. I'm staying in bed.' "

Holt said he opened his door and was beaten back by "black, pungent smoke. I said, 'This is for real.' " He and his wife, Kami, 26, threw on sweat pants, grabbed their cat and made their way down a stairwell.

He stood at North Charles and West Saratoga streets yesterday and hugged a neighbor. "I'm more scared now that I see how bad it really was," he said.

Kelly Hawkins, who lives on the 24th floor, said she rushed across the hallway and woke up a sleeping elderly neighbor. She stayed with firefighters in a 30th-floor apartment for five hours, not reaching ground level until 6 a.m.

"I was exhausted, and the firefighters were exhausted," Hawkins said. "I looked at them and thought there was no way I would make it out alive."

Lee Prisock lives on the ninth floor, six floors directly below the apartment where the fire started. "I heard what sounded like chunks of ice falling, but it was glass breaking," she said. "I went to the windows and saw the firefighters and knew I had to get out."

Lucy Garvey, 77, was sleeping in her 15th-floor unit when the alarm sounded. "At first I didn't know what it was, but when it dawned on me that it was a fire alarm, I threw on some clothes and ran to the door," she said.

She turned her hot doorknob, opened the door and smoke poured inside. She shut the door, covered the base with a damp towel and opened her living room window. A firefighter then burst through the door and got her out.

Williams, the city fire chief, said his department was "put to the test." It marked the first time the Special Rescue Operating Team, firefighters trained to battle high-rise fires, was put to use.

Capt. Robert Scarpati was the first of eight team members to hit the roof, lowered 50 feet by rope from a Maryland State Police MedEvac helicopter.

He was immediately met by 20 frightened residents who had made their way to the roof to escape the smoke. "We comforted them and told them that it was best to stay put," Scarpati said.

The firefighters then went door to door, starting on the top floor and working their way down, moving people up to the 30th level until the fire was brought under control at 3: 40 a.m.

Thick smoke nearly blinded firefighters as they groped along a hallway on the 16th floor, banging on doors in search of trapped residents. A firefighter heard pounding on the inside of the door to unit 1608. Three men inside screamed in panic: "We've got to get out! Get us out!"

"They were begging us to come out the door," said Fire Lt. Michael Williams. "We were saying, 'You've got to stay there until we get our way back, so we know how to get you out the quickest way.' "

Firefighters set up a command post on the 14th floor and used a convoy to lug up heavy hoses, nozzles and extra oxygen tanks. The building was equipped with water valves on each floor, so hoses did not have to be stretched down more than a dozen flights of stairs.

Williams and his crew released the trapped men from their apartment and then turned to battle flames on the 17th floor, spending three tiring hours inside.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetimer," the 18-year veteran said. "All that fire, fire on five or six floors. And you had all those people trapped."

Sun staff writers Jay Apperson, Robert Hilson Jr. and contributing writer Jennifer Sullivan supplied information for this article.

Rebecca's 911 call

What follows is an excerpt from a 911 call by a trapped resident named Rebecca:

Rebecca: "The firefighters are outside, but they aren't using their ladders. Can they come and save me? Do their ladders reach this high? They could come get me if they wanted to."

Dispatcher, recommending she go to the window for air: "All I can do is stay on the phone and pray with you and hope for the best."

Rebecca: "Dear Lord, I want to thank you for all you've blessed me with. Thank you for the life you've allowed me to live. Lord, I love you, I love you so much, and I want to be with you more than anything. I love you and want to be with you, Lord. Amen."

Dispatcher, hanging up and turning to a colleague: "This is hard. I'm trying to keep my composure, but she had me crying two or three times. God, we're trying to do what we can to help and we can't do anything."

To learn more

To view video of the apartment building involved in the fire, go to The Sun's Web site SunSpot at www.sunspot.net

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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