'When the siren went off, it just scared you to death'

Smoky Walnut Towers fire started in couch

Smoky Walnut Towers fire started in couch

January 17, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

Apartment 303's previously white walls were charcoal with soot Thursday.

The heat from Saturday's fire in Building B of Walnut Towers melted the efficiency apartment's light fixtures, bubbled the cabinet doors and filled the apartment with heavy, black smoke.

"When the siren went off, it just scared you to death," said Virginia Anderson, 85, who lives on the second floor of the building that caught fire.

She said people helped each other get out of the building, but some of the 48 senior or disabled residents couldn't move quickly enough.


So the "firemen picked them up and throwed 'em over their shoulder," she said.

The apartment building is owned by the Hagerstown Housing Authority, and Anderson was one of the residents who stopped in at the charred apartment Thursday to take a peek inside and get a brief lesson on fire safety from the Hagerstown Fire Department.

People older than 65 and those with disabilities are at greater risk of fire injury than their younger, more able peers, said Mike Weller, a fire department public educator.

"This is the most serious fire we've had in one of the elderly adult apartments - from the smoke," Weller said.

There were no serious injuries in the 7 a.m. blaze, and the woman who lived in the apartment was not injured, an official with the Washington County Chapter of the American Red Cross said earlier this week.

The fire in the Walnut Towers apartment started in a couch, Hagerstown Assistant Fire Marshal Doug deHaven said.

He said authorities had not determined what ignited the couch, and that the fire remained under investigation.

The foam rubber in the couch's padding produced thick, black smoke that filled the apartment from knee-level up, darkening the walls.

DeHaven said although the fire was a relatively small one, the couch could have produced temperatures of between 800 and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit at its surface.

Weller gave the residents a mixed report card for their response Saturday. While the door to the apartment that caught fire was left open, allowing smoke to enter the rest of the building, the residents knew what to do when the fire alarm sounded.

Keeping doors shut is crucial because it keeps smoke from spreading, deHaven said. "Smoke is what kills the people," he said.

Several people were treated for respiratory problems Saturday morning.

Some who live in the apartment have trouble breathing to begin with, Anderson said.

Judith Files, 59, said she was on the first floor during the fire.

"When we heard the fire alarm go off ... I was still in my pajamas. I was going door to door and knocking" in the hallways. "It was very cloudy."

During a lecture about cooking appliances and smoking habits, Weller pointed to the couch remains that were a heap of wood and springs.

"This is why we've got to have you protected," he said.

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