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'Hero' woke residents of burning building

April 03, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

BAKER HEIGHTS, W.Va. - As Michael Largent drove into the Baker Heights I apartment complex early Sunday, he saw smoke coming from the roof.

He checked for burning leaves behind the building but saw none, so he called 911 on his cell phone.

Largent, 21, pounded on the doors of at least eight apartments, kicking open doors when no one answered. He woke a friend and her young daughter and helped them leave their apartment. He roused another woman from her sleep, and forced her out, too.

His instincts were right. A fire spread across the roofs of the eight apartments, causing as much as $500,000 worth of damage, said Mike Hough, the assistant chief of Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Co.

Monday afternoon, a group of residents and friends standing near the ashy remnants of the complex on W.Va. 9 praised Largent's reactions. They said his quick call for help and his tenacity in getting people out may have prevented a tragedy.

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"He was a hero that night," said Alicia Kenney, who was not home when Largent forced open her door to see if anyone was there.

Hough said the cause of the fire was unknown late Monday.

"It's possible that it could be electrical," he said.

A state fire marshal was leading the investigation, but arson was not suspected, according to Hough.

He said the fire was in an attic that stretches over six apartments in one building - three on the first floor, three on the second.

The four apartments in the connecting building suffered almost no damage, thanks to a prompt response by firefighters and a fire wall, he said.

The call came in at 5:45 a.m. Hough and Lt. Brian Davis went out on the first fire truck.

Finding no one still inside the apartments, they set out to fight the fire, which had spread across the entire roof.

Fire crews from Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, South Berkeley, Independent, Hedgesville, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center companies assisted, a total of about 70 people, according to Hough.

Firefighters were delayed at the start because the nearest hydrant, across the street, was not working, which they didn't know, Hough said. Instead, they hooked up hoses to a hydrant about three-quarters of a mile away, in a nearby subdivision, he said.

Hough said the first attack at the fire was from the roof of the adjacent building, using ladders and a hose. This confined the fire to the first building.

"That's where we stopped it," he said.

A faint smell of smoke was still evident Monday afternoon. Yellow tape blocked off access to the back of the building, which appeared harder hit. Wood, furniture and insulation sat in several jumbled piles, along with other ruined possessions. The second-floor apartments in the affected area were roofless.

Largent said he and his cousin, Carty Roberts, 28, who lives in an apartment that was not damaged, had been out that night at two local clubs. They later met up with a female friend and gave her a ride to the complex.

The woman, who didn't want to be identified, said she was the first to notice something wrong as they drove in, asking aloud, "Is that steam or smoke?"

"He jumped out," she said of Largent.

Christie Linaburg's apartment is next to the ones damaged by fire, but she only had slight water damage to her carpet.

She said she was not home, but her cousin was, asleep. Her cousin didn't believe Largent when he came in, thinking it was an April Fool's Day joke, Linaburg said.

"He had to practically drag her out," she said.

The displaced residents were staying either with family or at a hotel, their neighbors said.

Kenney said a woman who lived in one apartment had just moved out after 13 years, removing the final piece of furniture the day before the fire.

Residents and firefighters on Monday recalled two other fires at the complex.

Last year, a man was killed when his apartment caught fire, according to Hough.

In another fire a few years ago, a man's pet python died, probably because of smoke inhalation, Hough said.

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