Residents recount terror during fire; Dozens visit tower to assess damage


The terror of Friday morning lingered in Natale Caliendo's eyes yesterday as he showed off his healthy cat that -- along with many of his belongings -- survived the fire that heavily damaged five floors of the downtown Charles Center Tower apartment high-rise.

"It was a really bad scene. We were trapped," said Caliendo, one of three men rescued from a 16th-floor neighbor's apartment after they took turns breathing out the window and screaming for help for an hour.

"I did not think we were going to make it out," he said. "I was convinced we were done here."

As workers boarded windows and cleaning crews attacked the soot and pervasive smell of smoke, Caliendo was among dozens of residents returning to the 30-story building -- some to assess the damage and get enough clothes for a few days, and others moving back into their apartments.

One of those who stopped by was lawyer Mike Schiffer, who found his Apartment 1608 surprisingly unscathed. "All my stuff's there," said Schiffer, who has lived in the building since July.

It was Schiffer who opened his door to neighbors he didn't know during the early minutes of the fire. "I let them in and then I decided it was time to go," he said, recounting how he headed down a smoky stairwell, which became clear a couple of floors below.

Left behind were Caliendo from Apartment 1605, Drew Shane from 1606, and a third man, whose name they don't know. They thought the apartment was safer because they did not know where the fire started and feared the stairwells would be smoke-filled to the ground, Shane and Caliendo said.

But "it seemed like just minutes before the room filled with smoke," Shane said. "We took turns breathing out the window."

Unlike Caliendo, Shane said he never doubted that they would survive the fire, in which one woman died of cardiac arrest. "We were just getting a little anxious," he said.

When the firefighters arrived, "we couldn't see the door, we couldn't see each other," Shane said. Holding onto one another and the firefighters, they navigated the hall and stairs until the smoke cleared, he said.

In the confusion, Caliendo left behind his Siamese cat, Selena, whom he had brought into No. 1608. He thought she was dead, but returned Friday night to find the 2-year-old cat huddled safely in the neighbor's kitchen cabinet.

Caliendo and Shane were among about 30 people who spent Friday night at the Tremont Plaza Hotel, courtesy of the Charles Center Towers management, where the Red Cross also set up an emergency headquarters. It appeared that most were staying there last night.

26 apartments condemned

Twenty-six apartments on the 15th through 18th floors of the South Tower building have been condemned, said Pamela G. Martin, community relations director for Southern Management Corp., which owns it and the neighboring tower at Charles and Saratoga streets.

The eight-alarm fire was reported at 1: 22 a.m. -- ignited by a discarded cigarette on a couch in Apartment 1501. It spread upward to the 18th floor, filling much of the building quickly with heavy smoke. Some units on the 14th floor sustained heavy water damage, Martin said.

At least one elevator was in service yesterday afternoon, but it was so busy carrying workers and residents that some climbed many flights of stairs to their apartments.

Representatives of the management company were working to accommodate residents whose apartments were destroyed or uninhabitable. Martin said she had no estimate of how long it would take to repair the burned-out floors.

There was nothing left of some apartments, workers said.

'Worried about right now'

One of those with a condemned apartment is Richard Dickerson, a Peabody Conservatory student who lived on the 18th floor. Visiting his apartment yesterday afternoon, Dickerson, 24, said much of his furniture is salvageable and his computer was working, though "everything is pretty covered with soot and everything that was plastic melted."

Dickerson was offered an apartment on the 23rd floor of the neighboring Charles Center Tower but was undecided yesterday. "Right now, I'm just worried about right now," he said.

The Red Cross of Central Maryland was helping fire victims with food, clothing, replacement furnishings and medical assistance. Those affected by the fire can call the Red Cross Emergency Services Department at 410-764-4627.

Donations to help Charles Center Tower residents may be sent to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box Disaster Relief, Baltimore 21263.

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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