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5-alarm blaze at College Park apartment complex closes university, forces senior center evacuation

For The Baltimore Sun

More than 200 firefighters worked throughout the day and into the night Monday to contain a raging fire at a seven-story apartment complex under construction in College Park that closed the University of Maryland campus and forced the evacuation of a nearby senior center.

The five-alarm fire caused $39 million in damage to Fuse 47, a 250-unit apartment building on Berwyn House Road that was set to open in July, according to the Prince George's County Fire Department. The cause is believed to be accidental but remains under investigation, said Fire Department spokesman Mark Brady.

Brady called the response "one of, if not the, largest fire suppression efforts in [Prince George's] County history."

Fire crews from at least four counties responded to the blaze, which broke out about 10 a.m., officials said. Three ladder trucks and three engines were expected to stay overnight to keep an eye on the still-smoking construction site and extinguish any additional flare-ups.

The University of Maryland issued a statement canceling classes Monday just before 1 p.m., "due to poor air quality from an ongoing fire near campus." The heavy smoke could be seen from the university's flagship campus. Some students walked with their clothes pulled over their faces to avoid breathing in the smoke. The university planned to open on time Tuesday.

The campus alert also asked those on campus to "stay inside, and close windows and doors." Baltimore Avenue was closed to northbound traffic during the response.

Sixty-eight residents of the nearby Spellman House senior center were relocated to a community center due to smoke but allowed back into that building by Monday evening. One of the residents was taken to a hospital after having difficulty breathing.

"I came downstairs around 10 a.m. and a friend pointed out smoke across the street," said Melvin Johnson, a 75-year-old resident of Spellman House. "It was pretty scary — I saw people in the building having trouble breathing."

The fire, which started on the sixth floor, quickly spread to the seventh floor and the roof, Brady said. Parts of the roof later collapsed.

The Fire Department was worried about a "pancake collapse," in which the floors fall one on top of the other, Brady said. The lightweight wooden structure was having difficulty handling the amount of water being pumped in, he said. At one point, firefighters had been "flowing in 650 gallons of water per minute for five hours," Brady said.

"We're making an assessment now about how to get in there and mop it up," said County Fire Chief Benjamin Barksdale.

When a building is under construction, it leaves many open spaces that a fire can quickly travel through, Barksdale said.

"This building is under construction, so it doesn't have an alarm or sprinkler system hooked up yet," Brady said. "This fire was way ahead of us upon our arrival."

The Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Howard County fire departments, among others, joined Prince George's in sending units.

One firefighter suffered a minor injury, Barksdale said. Another firefighter was transported to the hospital due to overexertion.

Lucinda Stamm, a spokeswoman for the apartment complex, said she had no comment on whether the fire will impact the opening date or how many units have already been leased.

Brady said the fire's damage would "certainly rank near the top of fire loss estimates in county history."

Gov. Larry Hogan wrote in a Facebook post that he was monitoring the fire, and expressed thanks for the first responders.

"The state stands ready to offer any support needed to Prince George's County officials," he wrote.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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