College Park fire kills student

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- A University of Maryland student about to begin his last college semester died in a fire in his off-campus basement apartment early yesterday morning, trapped inside a building that fire officials said had been cited for being unsafe.

David Ellis, a 22-year-old senior majoring in American studies, was taken from his bedroom, where he was found unconscious and not breathing by firefighters. He was rushed to Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, where he was pronounced dead, said Mark E. Brady, spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department.


Ellis' roommate, Richard Lang, said he came home and saw smoke billowing from the apartment. He suffered minor injuries when he tried to get inside to Ellis, he said. Seven other occupants of the building's six apartments escaped.

A friend said Ellis' and Lang's apartment had a smoke detector, but Ellis deactivated it because the alarm blared every time he cooked something on the stove. Officials said the fire's cause is being investigated.


"We always tell people, you must have two ways out from any structure," Brady said as he stood outside the damaged two-story brick residence a couple of blocks from campus. "This one here is one way in, one way out of a cellar door. ... It was impossible for him to egress."

Brady said the building's windows were not up to code and that the building's owners -- identified in property records as Knox Box Realty -- had been cited "recently" for code violations. Sprinklers, which are in short supply in the university's off-campus student housing stock, could have prevented Ellis' death, Brady said. City code enforcement officials did not return several calls for more details on the apparent violations.

A landlord on the scene shouted at reporters who tried to interview her about the fire.

According to a personal page on the college Web site and a friend, Ellis is from Princeton Junction, N.J., but Brady said his driver's license lists his address as Manhattan. He and Lang had lived in the Rossburg Drive apartment for three semesters. The neighborhood's small, lower-rent, boxy apartment buildings -- some over 50 years old -- are known collectively as "Knox Boxes," for their proximity to Knox Road and their shape.

One friend, Christina Santiago, said Ellis was a familiar face on campus and used to have a Friday night underground hip-hop program on WMUC, the college radio station. "He was one of my best friends," she said. "He was a good person. He had a lot of potential to go far.

"It's awful," she said of the fire. "All the Knox Boxes are dangerous. It was a matter of time, really, before it happened."

It was the second fatal fire involving a student in the past year. An April 30 fire at another off-campus house was ruled arson after Michael A. Scrocca, 22, a finance major from Branchburg, N.J., died in a second-story bedroom and a gasoline can was found on the front porch. The crime remains unsolved.

Heather Arner, a senior who lives on the first floor of the building where yesterday's fire broke out about 2:30 a.m., said she heard her smoke alarm and called 911. Yesterday, she loaded some of her belongings into a car to move somewhere else for a while. "I'm still kind of in shock, I guess," she said.


Classes resume today for the spring semester. University spokesman Millree Williams said school officials are working to better educate students about fire safety. This morning, county fire officials went door-to-door to 200 addresses in the neighborhood handing out pamphlets and inspecting smoke detectors.

College Park officials have discussed changing requirements for sprinkler systems in off-campus housing. Rob Davis, who owns rental property nearby, said installing sprinklers at this point makes little sense since many of the buildings may be razed to construct new high-rises under consideration.

Davis said college students don't always follow instructions on keeping safe. "A lot of times I come in and do an inspection, my [smoke detector] batteries are in someone's Gameboy," he said.

David Dorsch, who owns rental units in another part of College Park, said in the 33 years he has been in the city, this is the third fatal fire. "For the most part, it has been a very, very safe community, as far as fires go," Dorsch said.

Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.