Students favor 'Knox Boxes' for a lack of rules

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK -- Elizabeth Foley's phone was ringing and ringing yesterday morning, long before what would be considered a college junior's finest hours. Mostly, it was her mother, reacting as parents tend to do, worried sick over the news that a fellow University of Maryland student had died in a fire in a basement apartment just like hers in a building less than a block away.

"My mom called me about four times this morning when she heard about it. I knew why she was calling," said Foley, a psychology and criminal justice major from Ellicott City, as she showed off her cozy, cavelike two-bedroom. "She said, 'When you have children, you'll understand.'"


The blaze this week that killed senior David Ellis, 22, in his cellar apartment - an apartment with a single door and windows too small for most people to climb through - has raised questions about the safety of the cluster of off-campus buildings known by generations of students as "Knox Boxes" for their proximity to Knox Road and their shape.

The brick structures, with silhouettes similar to the hotel pieces in the Monopoly board game, have long been a popular alternative to dorm living, a place where students are free to do what they please. But many of the buildings - the basement apartments, particularly - have been cited recently for violations of new fire safety codes, fire officials said. A few building owners made the required upgrades, but others are appealing the citations and therefore have not done the work, officials said.


City of College Park code enforcement officials refused yesterday to provide details of problems found at Ellis' building or any of the other Knox Boxes, noting the continuing investigation. Mark E. Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department, said yesterday that the cause of Ellis' death has been ruled smoke inhalation, adding that investigators were not certain exactly where or how the fire started.

A friend said Tuesday that the stove was causing the smoke detector in Ellis' apartment to go off, and he had removed its batteries because of the noise.

The Knox Boxes are owned by different landlords, some of whom take better care of their properties than others. Some of the white shutters and windows on the 1950s buildings are in desperate need of paint. Others have yards strewn with trash. In yesterday's strong winds, empty soda bottles and beer cans rolled down the streets, Styrofoam and papers surfed on each gust.

The buildings stand in the shadow of high-rises recently built to house students. Those buildings demand a higher rent and come with more restrictions, such as limits on the number of guests per room. Students who live in the Knox Boxes say they like a place with few rules.

There is talk that the Knox Boxes will be knocked down in coming years, with high-rises taking their place, too. With those plans on the drawing board, some landlords have said they are reluctant to do upgrades that include bigger basement windows and sprinkler systems.

Kim Menendez said her landlord, Rob Davis, borders on obsessive when it comes to taking care of the smoke detector in her basement apartment on Guilford Road, which are battery-powered with a hard-wire backup.

"He told us when we moved in that we're not allowed to touch the batteries," said the animal science major from Bowie. "He fixes them. Even if it's beeping [because of low batteries], we have to call him."

Menendez, a sophomore, moved into her apartment last month, just before final exams. She has been looking at the small windows and wondering whether she could get out in the event of a fire. She figures maybe she could, but worries about what would happen to a roommate who has trouble walking and about the three cats she would not want to leave behind.


"We should ask for a fire ax next to the window," suggested Clyde Latham, another roommate and a sophomore accounting major.

Latham said he likes the apartment because its age gives it the character other places lack. But he would not mind moving upstairs, where he might have an easier time escaping a fire.

"Being that they're all designed exactly the same and he couldn't get out, I'm [a little scared]" Latham said.

University and fire officials have said they hope students will be more aware of fire safety - wherever they live - after this week's fatality.

It certainly has senior Rachel Wagner thinking.

"Sometimes you wonder if the wiring is OK and stuff. What happened was really sad, and it kind of put a scare in us," said the kin- esiology major, who lives in a second-floor apartment on Hartwick Road. "It makes us wonder if it could happen to us. But for the most part, we haven't had trouble. ...


"It's like your own little private place. It's worth it if you want that freedom."