Fatal Hagerstown fire called an accident

September 26, 1997


Staff Writer

The exact cause of a fire that claimed the life of a disabled 56-year-old Hagerstown man early Friday may never be known, city fire officials said.

George Eugene Maphis, who had multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair, died in the kitchen of his home at 727 Washington Ave. after he caught on fire, Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker said.

Maphis' body was found by firefighters shortly after 5:30 a.m., he said.

Investigators were told Maphis had a habit of lighting his cigarettes from a gas burner on the kitchen stove, but it isn't known if that's what caused the fire, Hawbaker said.


The blaze is believed to be accidental, he said.

It was the first fatal fire in the city this year, Hawbaker said.

No one else was injured even though the fire spread to two nearby houses, Hawbaker said. Two family members who were staying with Maphis and nearby neighbors were able to escape the blaze unharmed, he said.

Hawbaker said Maphis' sister Phillis Bowles, 58, found her brother on fire when she came downstairs in the home they shared, and tried in vain to put the fire out with a fire extinguisher and then with a blanket. She was finally forced to flee the house.

Bowles' grandson, 20-year-old Eian Smith, was able to jump from a second-floor window to safety, Hawbaker said.

The victim lived in a double house. When firefighters arrived, the rear of 727 Washington Ave. where Maphis lived was completely engulfed in flames, Hawbaker said.

"We couldn't have saved him," he said.

Hawbaker said at first there was some confusion on the part of fire and rescue dispatchers about what was happening at the home.

Bowles first called 911 at 5:27 a.m., and was screaming, Hawbaker said. "The phone apparently got cut off, and the dispatcher thought it might be a domestic (dispute)," he said.

At 5:28 a.m. the dispatcher called the Hagerstown Police Department, and 30 seconds later dispatched a medic unit to the scene, Hawbaker said.

The first person on the scene was Hagerstown Police Officer Thomas Kelly. He arrived at 5:32 a.m., opened the door "and realized there was no way he was going to be able to get in," Hawbaker said.

Meanwhile, at 5:31 a.m. fire and rescue got a call from a neighbor reporting the fire, the chief said. Fire units were dispatched at 5:33 a.m., and arrived at the house at 5:35 a.m., he said.

The fire spread to the adjoining half-double at 725 Washington Ave. and to the house next door at 729 Washington Ave., he said.

Hawbaker said a woman who lived at 725 Washington Ave. in the other half of the double escaped unharmed.

The fire caused heavy damage to the second floor and attic areas of her home, and broke through the second-floor windows and into the roof of the house at 729 Washington Ave., he said.

Darren Lewis, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's two teenage children live at 729 Washington Ave., next door to the scene of the fatal fire.

Lewis said he and his girlfriend were both at work when the fire broke out. He said his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter Jamie awoke when Bowles beat on the back door and asked her to call 911. He said Jamie made the call.

Jamie's 17-year-old brother Jimmy was awakened by the sound of windows blowing out of the Maphis home, Lewis said. The boy came downstairs, grabbed the dog and went out the back door while Jamie got out of the home through the front door, Lewis said.

Jimmy saw Maphis in the kitchen at the back door, screaming for help, but the boy was unable to help him, Lewis said.

Lewis said the family was in the process of getting counseling for the teen.

Lewis said he got home after a security guard called him away from his job at about 7 a.m. and told him what had happened. He said when he got home he found the fire had come up the side of his home and into the eaves and attic and through the ceiling in the upstairs of the house, where the children's bedrooms are located.

He said there was smoke damage throughout the house, and water damage downstairs.

Lewis said he shoveled the walk in front of the Maphis home in winter and spoke to Bowles occasionally, but didn't know much about the family. He said he used to see Bowles wheel Maphis out onto the back porch. Maphis would sometimes wheel into the street on his own, appearing disoriented, and police would have to get him and return him home, he said.

William G. Tarsus of Hagerstown, who owns the house where the fatal fire occurred, could not be reached Friday.

David J. Magaha lives in 731 Washington Ave., on the other side of the house occupied by Lewis. He owns the double house. Magaha was busy Friday talking to insurance adjusters about fire damage.

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