Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Residents escape late-night apartment fire

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Six adults and a 4-month-old child were hospitalized, and as many as 16 people were displaced after a fire burned through a second-floor apartment Jan. 30 at Oakfield Apartment Homes at 12143 Georgia Ave. in Wheaton.
Residents of a garden-style apartment complex in Wheaton aided neighbors — including an infant — in a “dramatic“ escape from a heavy, fast-moving fire Wednesday night before firefighters arrived, according to a county fire and rescue official.

A mother dropped a 4-month-old child from the third floor of the Oakfield Apartment Homes building into the arms of another resident standing about 20 feet below, according to Pete Piringer, a spokesman with the county Fire and Rescue Service.

Resident Guillermo Cuevas, who lives across from the damaged complex, was in his apartment where he lives with his wife and three boys. He saw the smoke and flames and ran out to help.

The family was trying to find a way to get the child down from the third floor, Cuevas said on Thursday evening. Cuevas said he would try to catch her, and he did.

“It’s scary but we needed to do something,“ Cuevas said. “They needed help.“

Another resident extended a ladder to the third floor to help residents who were prepared to jump to climb to safety, Piringer said.

Others shimmied down gutters, jumped or fell from the building as heavy fire, smoke and heat forced evacuation and limited access to escape routes, Piringer said.

About 16 people — 14 adults and two children — in five families were displaced by the fire that started before 11:50 p.m. on the second floor of a three-story garden-style apartment building at 12143 Georgia Ave., which is part of a complex that has been plagued by fire in previous years.

Six adults and the 4-month-old child were taken to the hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation, and bruises and cuts received in the escape from third-floor apartments, Piringer said.

Piringer said several 911 calls reported a fire on the second floor and residents trapped in their units located above the apartment where the fire started.

“People smelled smoke and tried to exit out the stairwells, but retreated to their apartments and balconies because of smoke and heat,“ he said.

One family on the third floor was threatening to jump, but “people told them not to,“ Piringer said. “A neighbor from an adjacent building who works as a laborer ... grabbed a ladder from his truck and, with the help of several people, got two or three people down by ladder.“

When firefighters from nearby stations in Glenmont and Wheaton arrived, residents had all evacuated.

Piringer said all the injuries were not life-threatening, but did not know their conditions Thursday afternoon.

Between 50 and 60 firefighters responded and put out the fire in about 20 minutes. The cause remains under investigation. Piringer said damage to the six units totaled about $450,000 — $350,000 to the structure, $100,000 to contents within the apartments.

No one was in the apartment when the fire started, Piringer said, and it may have been burning for a while before residents smelled smoke and smoke detectors sounded.

“The fire was in its advanced stages when we got there,“ he said. “This was a fast-moving fire.“

The American Red Cross of the National Capital Area responded and provided financial assistance to the 16 residents displaced. Funds will help cover emergency food and clothing expenses as well as short-term hotel accommodations, said Marcus Rosano, a Red Cross spokesman.

Oakfield Apartment Homes, formerly part of Georgian Woods, a complex of 59 buildings with more than 500 units, experienced four fires in 2006. In April 2006, firefighters braved heavy smoke conditions to rescue a pregnant woman from an Oakfield apartment at 2221 Georgian Way. About 40 residents in eight apartments were affected by the fire that caused about $1.55 million in damage.

An electrical fire that started in the attic of a building at 2305 Georgian Way caused about $800,000 damage in August 2006. Another 40 residents were displaced.

In 2005, a five-alarm fire caused about $3.5 million in damage to a building at 12112 Shorefield Court.

Angel Sanjurjo, who has lived in the complex for the last three and a half years with his wife and children, is familiar with the history of fires at the complex.

“It’s scary here because it happened before. This is real scary,“ he said Thursday afternoon.

Piringer said the fires appear unrelated. He said Fairfield Properties, Oakfield’s owner and manager, has been renovating several of the buildings.

“Our code enforcement folks have been working with them and they’ve been very responsive,“ he said.

Calls to the Oakfield management office and to Fairfield Residential LP in Bethesda were not returned Thursday afternoon.