Lessons learned from Piney Branch fire in Silver Spring -- Gazette.Net


After a fire at their apartment complex displaced them from their homes, four victims were also robbed of some of the only possessions they could salvage.

According to police reports, three residents of the Park Forest Apartments in the 9300 block of Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring had their burned-out apartments burglarized after the Aug. 27 fire while another was a victim of theft.

The fire, ignited by an electric socket near a bed that sparked a mattress, displaced 100 residents on Aug. 27. Officials said damage was estimated at $1 million for the building and $500,000 to the contents.

Montgomery County officials, nonprofit organizations representatives, and faith-based community organizations attended a meeting Oct. 30 to examine the effectiveness of responders during and after the fire at the Forest Park apartment complex. All victims have found housing, but some had been victimized a second time.

According to a police report, Kenita Sullivan used to live in apartment T13. She stated that she went back to her apartment on Aug. 31 and found her rear sliding door to the home shattered, according to a police incident report. Sullivan noticed that audio equipment, television, radio, camera, an iPod touch, and her gold wedding band and gold earrings were missing.

A total of $5,764 valuables were stolen, according to the report.

Garcia Orellana, a former tenant of apartment 105 told police he was also the victim of a burglary after the fire, according to a police incident report. The report stated that Orellana’s home was condemned after the fire and he didn’t immediately file a missing items report.

Shajee Tahaw Wur of apartment 206 filed a report with police saying his apartment was also broken into after the fire. According to the police incident report, Wur didn’t report the crime until his insurance agent advised him to do it.

A fourth former resident, Martha Abate, who used to live at apartment 202, was recovering her belongings on Aug. 31 from her apartment after the fire and put 30 pairs of shoes in a black trash bag and left the bag out in the apartment hallway, according to a police report. When she returned to the hallway with more recovered items she found the bag had been stolen.

The victims could not be reached for comments.

No one has been arrested in any of the crimes, according to the police.

Rosie McCray-Moody, manager at the office of landlord-tenant affairs at Montgomery County, said, “the owner of the property is responsible for securing the place” once the fire marshal’s office and police have completed their investigations.

But in an email to The Gazette, the president of CIH Properties Inc., Kevin P. O’Malley, said the company secured the apartment building’s entry door the morning after the fire and installed a security fence around the perimeter of the apartments.

“We boarded the additional windows and secured the patio doors that were directly accessible from the ground. We then employed a security contractor to station a guard within the fence line during the night time,” said O’Malley. “We also proceeded to install a temporary electric service to provide light to the interior and exterior of the building.”

Attendees at the Oct. 30 meeting had the opportunity to talk about their experience helping fire victims from 27 units, and expressed their frustrations with the days after the fire while sharing suggestions to make responses more efficient.

Some of the suggestions at the meeting were better communication between government agencies and nonprofits; ensure the victims, regardless or immigration status, can trust the fire marshal’s office and police; and include additional training to clarify the role of nonprofits such as American Red Cross and state and federal agencies. Also noted was a need to distribute a resource directory or “desktop guide” to community groups.

Pearline Tyson, program manager for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said the community must know who to look for when in need of help.

Tyson and other government officials agreed that some of the displaced families were not comfortable with the presence of law enforcement mainly because of their undocumented immigration status.

“If they were comfortable with a lot of these people I think that would have helped a lot, too,” said Tyson.

Blanca Kling, Hispanic liaison for Montgomery County police, said police do not ask for immigration status if a person is a victim or witness of a crime.

Tyson also expressed concerns with the roles of various groups in such disasters adding that communication must also improve.

“Sometimes we are jumping into it, and we don’t know what has already been done,” said Tyson.

Victims are still being helped by faith-based organizations.

Sligo Seventh Day Adventist church members raised $14,651 to aid the fire victims. The fund will be given to Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington and distributed to affected residents.

Still, county officials were pleased with the efforts by the community and emergency management team.

“What I take from the August event and response and debriefing is that we have many dedicated, caring, and concerned individuals and organizations that want to be as effective and efficient as possible,” said John J. Kenney of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services in an email to The Gazette.