Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fire community still reeling from apartment blaze

Some officials say it is worse fire in several years

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Members of the county’s firefighting community are still reeling 11 days after a fire raged through a Rockville apartment building, killing one resident and sending three of their own to the hospital with severe burns.

‘‘When I heard about it my stomach just sank,” said Eric N. Bernard, president of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department. ‘‘We should have lost three firefighters on that one. We are so lucky that they were not injured [any] worse or killed looking at that scene.”

Two of the firefighters injured in the May 3 fire were released from the hospital last week and the third was expected to undergo surgery on Tuesday, county Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Pete Piringer said. He said that firefighter could remain in the hospital for another week or longer.

Firefighters say they have trouble recalling an incident as serious as this one.

‘‘I go to a lot of fires and I’ve seen a lot of fires and that was just remarkable,” said Bernard, who has been a firefighter for 25 years.

John Thompson, deputy fire chief with the Silver Spring Fire Department, who assisted with the fire, said the last time he witnessed anything like that was July 19 of last year when a fire broke out at 12012 Claridge Road in Wheaton.

During that incident, three firefighters fell into the basement of a two-story duplex after a stairway collapsed.

‘‘In both cases, it created a situation where the structure was weakened,” he said.

‘‘Three firefighters were injured in that one, but not as severely as these guys,” Thompson added. ‘‘They were just totally different outcomes.”

Chief Richard Bowers, division chief in charge of wellness, safety and training for county Fire and Rescue Service, called the incident ‘‘very complex” and said the fire must have burned undetected for a long time.

‘‘We’ve had a lot of significant fires in my 31 years, but none equal to the complexity and intensity of this incident and its results,” he said.

Bowers has been to many fires in similar apartment complexes.

‘‘Years ago, I even saw a fire in that same apartment complex and it was nothing like this,” he said.

He said he would expect a quick collapse in buildings constructed today because of the types of lightweight materials that are used.

‘‘But generally you wouldn’t expect a catastrophic, complete collapse like that in the first few minutes of the fire in that type of building built in the 1960s,” Bowers said.

He said firefighters’ injuries are typically treated on the scene of the fire.

‘‘Unfortunately, it’s becoming a little more common for firefighters to be sent to the hospital as a result of the much more hostile environment they’re being exposed to on a more frequent basis,” Bowers said.

He said a significant part of firefighters’ training already focuses on self-rescue, but that an even greater emphasis will be placed on it as a result of this fire.

County Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr. has convened a review panel to study the incident. Division Chief Michael T. Love will lead the panel, which will include five members of the county Fire and Rescue Service and three fire chiefs from Fairfax, Va., Washington, D.C., and Prince William County, Va.

‘‘It will really help us figure out what went right and areas of improvement, if any, are needed,” Bowers said, adding he is not a member of the panel.

The three-alarm blaze broke out just before 1 a.m. May 3 at the Halpine View apartments at 12819 Twinbrook Parkway.

When fire and rescue crews arrived, they found heavy fire coming from the second and third floors of a three-story garden-style apartment building, Piringer said. More than 100 firefighters were on the scene.

Fire officials do not know where smoke alarms might have been located in the apartment unit, or whether they were working. They said that alarms sounded in other units in the building.

Shortly after firefighters began battling the blaze, the third floor collapsed, sending two firefighters from the third level into the second floor, where the fire began, Piringer reported.

A ‘‘Mayday” distress signal, signifying a firefighter is down or injured, was immediately activated, Piringer said, but the two firefighters jumped through a second-floor window, landing on the ground 13 feet below.

The third firefighter was eventually able to get out of the building.

At about the same time, rescuers found a man in a second-floor apartment near the front door and took him out of the building, Piringer said. Timothy Moran, 50, succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene, he added.

Moran was the lone occupant of that apartment unit, where the fire likely began, Piringer said. Fire officials believe the fire was accidental and could have been caused by cigarettes, he added.

Moran is the third residential fire fatality of the year in Montgomery County, he reported.

Damage is estimated to be $1.1 million, including $1 million to the structure and $100,000 to the contents, he said.

Firefighters rescued four residents from the building, Piringer said. One was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, he said.

Capt. R. Dwayne Dutrow, 38, a 17-year veteran of the county fire service who is also a paramedic, remains in the MedStar Burn Unit of Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. in fair condition, Piringer said Tuesday. His injuries are serious and include burns to his arms, legs, face and hands.

FirefighterˇParamedic James Heikka, 31, an eight-year veteran of the fire service, was released from the Burn Unit May 7. His injuries included burns to his arms and legs and facial lacerations.

FirefighterˇRescuer Mark Mechlin, 23, a one-year veteran of the fire service who was released from the hospital May 5, suffered less serious injuries, including burns to the leg, Piringer reported.

The American Red Cross worked with Grady Management, who manages the apartment complex, to relocate residents and provide shelter and other needs.

A woman in the apartment leasing office said they had no comment and asked a Gazette reporter to leave the apartment complex property May 3.

A manager at Grady Management could not be reached for comment as of Gazette press time Tuesday. Attempts to reach him were made last week as well.