Carbon monoxide found in Towson high-rise

The Baltimore Sun

Robin Lambo was asleep when the firefighters pounded on her door about 7:30 a.m. yesterday. Still in her nightclothes, she managed to ask whether she could pull on a pair of shorts before being led from her apartment on the 11th floor of the Virginia Towers in Towson.

But the 39-year-old disabled woman didn't have time in those frantic moments to grab her purse and medicine - a common problem during yesterday's evacuation of about 150 disabled and senior residents from the 15-story high-rise at 500 Virginia Ave. after carbon monoxide was detected.

"I'm just waiting for them to go back in and get it for me," she said, sitting on the curb outside as firefighters used wheelchairs to move residents from the building and onto idling buses.

An underground electrical cable apparently caught fire, causing carbon monoxide - an odorless gas - to leak into ductwork of the high-rise, fire officials said.

Repairs were continuing yesterday, and service was expected to be restored by 10 o'clock last night, BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy said.

Emergency management and social services officials were working with the apartment complex managers to contact relatives or find hotel rooms for about 60 to 70 displaced residents, said Lt. John Cromwell, a county fire spokesman.

It remained unclear yesterday why the cable had burned, said Foy, the BGE spokeswoman. "When we finish removing all of the damaged cable, we'll take it back to try to determine what caused the damage," she said.

A 911 caller reported smelling fumes in the building about 7:20 a.m., Cromwell said. Firefighters detected the presence of carbon monoxide when they got inside.

On some floors, the levels of carbon monoxide were low. On others, the level was higher.

The amount of gas detected wasn't lethal but was high enough to be considered dangerous, said Richard Muth, director of the county's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

As firefighters started to evacuate the building, they decided that it would be safest for all residents to leave the building, Muth said.

It meant going door to door - in many cases waking residents. Some residents require oxygen tanks. And many cannot walk, so firefighters used "stair chairs," lightweight wheelchairs designed to transport patients down stairs, Muth said.

Three residents were taken to local hospitals, not because of exposure to carbon monoxide but from the stress of the emergency situation, Muth said.

The evacuation took more than two hours, he said.

Officials waited outside with clipboards to write down the names of residents, what medications they would need and where the prescriptions were located, so that crews could return and retrieve necessary supplies and pets.

But Polly Bailey, a 64-year-old resident, said she wasn't about to leave without her Chihuahua, Cocoa.

"I went down nine flights of stairs in the pitch dark, [using] my crutch, with him in my arm," Bailey said. "He was scared."

A mass transit bus and two County Ride buses took many residents to nearby Bykota Senior Center. Others went with relatives or friends.

The American Red Cross provided lunch and dinner from McDonald's for stranded residents, an agency spokesman said.

The county's Office of the Public Defender is in the Virginia Towers. The attorneys kept appointments with clients and appeared in court, though some of them might have had to tell judges that they didn't have their files, said Kimberlee Schultz, a spokeswoman for the state's Office of the Public Defender.

The high-rise was evacuated in December when heating oil leaked from a storage unit, Muth said. But the weather on that occasion was unusually warm, and most residents were able to wait outside for several hours while repairs were made, Muth said.

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