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High-rise fire kills woman on balcony


As her neighbors looked on aghast and helpless, an elderly woman standing on her eighth-floor balcony yesterday morning was engulfed by flames while firefighters below shouted directions to her in the hope of saving her life.

"Her hair was on fire, and they were yelling at her, 'Lay down! Lay down!'" said Gloria Henry, 67, who lives opposite the woman's apartment and watched the scene. "I knew she couldn't survive that," she said. "It scared me, too."

Police identified the victim as Annabell Gillard, 70, who lived alone.

Firefighters put out the four-alarm blaze at the McCulloh Homes high-rise in the 500 block of Dolphin St. in less than half an hour. The 15-story building has 213 mostly single-occupancy apartments for elderly people.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a city Fire Department spokesman, said about 250 people occupy the building.

With help from 25 units, firefighters contained the blaze to the victim's apartment, which was destroyed. Smoke damaged two adjacent apartments and sent their occupants to the hospital.

Torres said each apartment is equipped with at least one smoke detector and that the building's fire alarm system is tied into the Fire Department's communication section.

As of yesterday afternoon, a man who suffered from smoke inhalation and also has emphysema was in critical condition at University of Maryland Medical Center. An elderly woman overcome by smoke was treated there and released. Their identities were not available.

The fire began shortly after 8 a.m., when many of the residents were at home and were dressed in nightgowns and pajamas. Others had left for church, returning to find their building surrounded by firetrucks and yellow police tape.

Floretha Phair, 80, had just begun listening to her regular Sunday morning preacher on television when she saw smoke going past her window on the seventh floor. Then she heard the building's fire alarm sound.

With other residents, she began walking downstairs - a difficult journey because of her arthritis.

"I thought people were going to knock me down the stairs, but they didn't. They were very nice," said Phair, wearing her nightgown and clutching a cane. "The firetrucks were here like lightning. Seemed they knew about it before we did."

Phair's daughter Lora Whitehead heard about the fire and tried to call her mother, but no one answered. She rushed from Pikesville to McCulloh Homes, where she found her mother standing outside with other residents. Whitehead held her mother's head and kissed her with relief.

Torres said that when firefighters arrived, the victim's apartment was aflame and she was on the balcony engulfed in fire. Firefighters went inside the building, while others set up ladders to her balcony and shouted at her to lie down and roll.

She did not respond, however. By the time they reached Gillard, she had died. Some residents cried as they watched from the ground and from balconies on upper floors.

Torres said the cause of the fire was unknown but that a preliminary investigation suggested the victim had tried to fight the fire. A fire extinguisher had been emptied and water was running from the kitchen tap.

"If she did try to fight it herself, it may have cost the occupant her life," Torres said. By not leaving immediately, she might have allowed the fire to block her escape, he said, adding that the safest response to a fire is to leave the scene and call 911.

Reginald Scriber, ombudsman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which runs McCulloh Homes, said all eighth-floor residents - about 14 people - would spend the night in a hotel while the smoke and water damage was attended to.

Asked whether the building's security workers had tried to reach the woman's apartment, Scriber said he did not know.

"Whatever happened, it worked, because we only had one fatality," he said.

McCulloh Homes was built in 1972, eight years before fire safety codes requiring extensive sprinkler systems went into effect.

Although sprinklers make a building "much safer," Torres said, high-rises - even those built before the current fire safety code - generally are safer than single-family houses because their design does not allow fire to travel easily between apartments and floors.

Yesterday's blaze recalled one in February 1999 that ruined five floors of the 30-story Charles Center Tower and caused $3 million in damage. A 72-year-old woman died of a heart attack.

Torres said the 1999 fire flashed through his mind as he headed to McCulloh Homes yesterday.

"Every time we have a high-rise building fire, you always worry," he said. "The Charles Tower fire really tested the Fire Department ... so today we were prepared to give 120 percent."

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