Fire ravages, has many out in cold

The Baltimore Sun

Elaina Leonard stood in a driveway slippery with fire-hose ice and looked with disbelief at her destroyed apartment.

"I don't have anything now," she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "I'm looking right through my living room. There's nothing there, not even a couch. Everything you work for is where you live. I have to start all over again."

Leonard, 22, was one of about 80 residents displaced by a four-alarm fire that roared through part of the Berkshires at Satyr Hill apartment complex in Carney shortly after 1 a.m. yesterday, wiping out 24 units and drawing 150 firefighters. The blaze was not declared under control until almost five hours later.

Two residents - a woman and her teenage daughter - suffered minor injuries, said Battalion Chief Ed Watkins of the Baltimore County Fire Department. The woman was burned on her face when she opened a door and was met by a wall of flame, he said. The girl suffered from smoke inhalation, and both were treated at a hospital and released.

"It's remarkable that there weren't more," Watkins said, noting the severity of the fire and the speed with which it appeared to have begun.

A firefighter broke his arm when he slipped on ice, a particular hazard given the frigid weather and the volume of water, much of which froze almost immediately, that was poured onto the blaze.

Two people were rescued from the rear of the burning three-story building by firefighters from the first engine to arrive at the complex on Spindrift Circle, just off Lowell Ridge Road, at 1:16 a.m.

The firefighters reported "significant fire" as they pulled up. Within 40 minutes, incident commanders had raised their response to four alarms.

Authorities later said that all residents had been accounted for and that those whose homes were ruined would be relocated to vacant apartments in the complex or, temporarily, to the Comfort Inn nearby on Loch Raven Boulevard. Red Cross and Baltimore County Emergency Management officials spoke with displaced residents at both locations to ensure that their immediate needs were met.

Watkins, the battalion chief, said at midmorning that investigators had taken photographs and samples from the wrecked structure and concluded that, while still under investigation, the fire's origins were not suspicious. He said the owners of the building decided almost immediately to pull down what remained of it, and demolition equipment was in place by noon.

Some residents complained that they had heard no fire alarms before becoming aware of the fire and scrambled to escape only after hearing a loud commotion. Representatives of Berkshire Property Advisors LLC, which manages the complex and more than 26,000 other apartments in 14 states, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. The company's Web site says the Satyr Hill complex recently underwent $2.8 million in renovations.

Fire officials said many of the residents did not have renters' insurance that might have helped them recover from the blaze. Despite their losses, some of those who escaped were, above all, relieved.

"I looked out my window and it was orange, so we rushed out," Jasmine Campbell, 23, said as she described the encircling flames.

Campbell, who graduated last year from Morgan State University, returned to the complex yesterday morning to see whether anything was left. She was hoping to be allowed inside, she said, to "salvage some of my valuables, the stuff we can't replace." She borrowed a reporter's notebook to tally some of the things she feared might be burned or waterlogged, including her pocketbook, digital camera and bank cards.

"I need some clothes to put on my back because I'm freezing and so I don't have to ask my friends for clothes, even though they're willing," Campbell said as she began chipping at the sheet of ice covering her car in the parking lot. "I'm praying we can get our clothes out."

Tiffany Nicholson, who had fallen asleep on her couch and awakened with a start, said she grabbed her 2-year-old son and her Yorkshire terrier as soon as it became clear they needed to evacuate. "When we opened the door, we saw the flames," she said. "They were blocking the main door in the hallway."

Nicholson took another route out and headed for her car. At that point, her husband, who she said had been having a boys' night out nearby, appeared.

"He was coming to save the day, but we were all right," she said. "We're fine."

Nicholson, a 26-year-old employee of the federal government who is a diabetic, said a fire investigator had fetched from her apartment a box containing her medications, and that she had received multiple offers of help from emergency officials, the Red Cross and members of her church.

"I have a new respect for all of them," she said. "Nothing but good can come of this. You've got to be optimistic."

Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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