Apartment fire leaves residents in limbo


Blanche Finley was watching television in her Aberdeen apartment Saturday when she saw the news about families left homeless by a housing complex fire in Owings Mills.

"I felt so sad for those people," she said. "I had tears in my eyes.

"I never thought it would be me the next day," she said.

Finley, 75, shook her head as she stood in the parking lot of Hillside Terrace Apartments off Route 22 yesterday, surveying the damage from a Sunday afternoon fire that swept through the 40-year-old white brick buildings.

She is one of 90 people at Hillside Terrace who ran from their familiar lives and into the unfamiliar and haunting world of fire victims: No clothes, no bed, no identification, no medicines, no keepsakes -- pieces of their lives they might never get back.

And no sense of when life might return to normal.

No one was hurt in the fire, but the lives of the Harford County residents were devastated just the same.

Many gathered yesterday at the complex to learn when they can sift through what's left of their belongings. Stress spread across weary faces waiting to hear any news in the unseasonably hot sun.

And the news was bad.

Steve Beyer, the resident manager, said it could be eight to 10 days before most residents will be allowed to look through the blackened debris and smoke-damaged rooms that once were their homes.

For Christine Ororey, 41, gazing at the charred buildings with her 9-month-old son in her arms, getting back into her home is paramount.

Ororey said she misses her home-brewed morning coffee. Now she's getting breakfast for Logan, his 9-year-old sister, Aubrey, and brother, Bruce, 18, from fast-food restaurants, paying with vouchers given to her by the Central Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross. The vouchers have also helped them buy clothes ($40 for each child, $55 for herself) and stay at a nearby motel.

"They gave us everything," she said of the Red Cross, which set up a service center Sunday at Fairbrooke Senior Apartments, across West Bel Air Avenue from Hillside Terrace.

Ororey, who moved there about a year ago and works at Aberdeen's Olive Tree restaurant, didn't have renter's insurance. "I was thinking about it because I was accumulating some things. ... It's too late for that now," she said, looking away.

About half the residents of Hillside Terrace have renter's policies, the management estimates. That's not unusual; nationwide, only one in four renters has insurance, said P.J. Crowley, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

"People think the landlord's coverage takes care of their personal belongings," Crowley said. "But it doesn't."

Pauline Dentler, 87, who had lived at Hillside Terrace for four years, said, "You miss your bathroom and your bed and your kitchen."

Dentler, like other older residents, has been focused on getting medication, which can be a taxing process, even with Red Cross help.

"[Pharmacists] want your ID," she said, but hers is still in her apartment.

Other residents have been separated from Social Security numbers, drivers' licenses -- and bills that are due.

Barry Mitchell said having to wait to get to those is tough to accept. "All my bills that were coming due -- all that's in there, and I can't get to it. It's frustrating," he said.

Mitchell is one of the few with renter's insurance, but his policy information is in his apartment.

When Beyer assured him everything would be all right, Mitchell shot back, "It's not fine. I need to call them."

For children, favorite toys were left behind. And they must deal with the psychological impact.

Wendell Baxter, who has volunteered with the Red Cross for about 26 years, said one boy came to the center Sunday and asked, "Do you think my teddy bear will be OK?"

Andrew Ragsdale, 5, has been overwhelmed by the fire and its aftermath, said his parents, Robert and Elizabeth. "He's crying; he won't eat," said his father. "It's all we can do to get him to eat toast."

The Ragsdales are staying with a friend. Andrew and his 3-year-old sister, Lauren, bunk in one room, and the parents trade turns on an air mattress and sleeper sofa.

What do they miss most? "Normalcy," Elizabeth Ragsdale said.

"You wake up and realize where you're at," Robert Ragsdale said.

Debbie Thomas, who discovered the fire Sunday while with her roommate, Chris Kress, was overcome yesterday by the memory of smoke filling the air outside her kitchen window. While Kress ran to the phone that day, Thomas ran into the burning building next door, banging on doors, tripping and breaking two toes in the process.

"Nobody knew," she said of the fire, her voice cracking. "Nobody knew."

Blanche Finley knew because Brittany Wallace, 15, called her. Finley used to baby-sit Brittany, who was at a nearby supermarket. She saw the flames and called. "Nanny, get out," Brittany cried into her cell phone.

And Finley did, leaving behind so many things: a living room suite, given by her family as a birthday surprise and delivered just days before; the American flag that was draped on the casket of her husband, an Army veteran; and a box full of Christmas ornaments, with photos of her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and children she baby-sat, including Brittany.

Several of Finley's relatives also escaped the fire at Hillside Terrace: her sister-in-law Tressie Blevins, 73; Blevins' son, David; and his sons and daughter-in-law.

Finley's daughter Sandy said that since the fire, whenever they go places, her mother asks, "Wait, did you get my purse?"

But it is still in Finley's apartment, with her ID and her money. Finley said she didn't even have any change in her pocket as she rushed from the fire. "I'm just lost in the world."

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