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Fire marshals probing apartment blaze

December 02, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Fire marshals continued to investigate a Sunday apartment fire in which a Hagerstown woman was severely burned less than a month after her mother was bludgeoned to death in her Smithsburg-area home.

Meanwhile, a Hagerstown Police Department detective from the Criminal Investigations Division was added to the case, although Lt. Rick Johnson said authorities did not believe foul play was involved in the blaze.

Brenda L. Hitt, of 39 E. North Ave., was listed in critical condition Monday evening at Washington Hospital Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.

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Hitt, daughter of Shirley P. Finfrock, suffered severe burns Sunday morning when fire engulfed the front room, being used as a bedroom, of her first-floor apartment, Hagerstown Fire Marshal Tom Brown said.

Brown said other apartments in the building sustained smoke and heat damage but had no fire damage. He said investigators had not determined the cause of the blaze and set no timetable for the release of such information.

"We're still talking to the family, neighbors and people in the area of the building," Brown said Monday. "As soon as we're able to process the evidence and make a determination, we'll do so."

Johnson said the police department assigned Detective Tammy Jurado to the investigation as a result of discussions Monday with Brown.

Both Johnson and Brown said they had no reason to believe foul play was involved.

"It's probably better to err on the side of caution and cover all the bases," Johnson said. "There's been nothing indicating to us there is foul play involved."

Johnson also said authorities had not been led to believe the fire was related to the Finfrock homicide.

Finfrock was found bludgeoned to death in her 22128 Holiday Drive home on Nov. 12. The Washington County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating the homicide, has made no arrests in connection with her death.

East North Avenue resident Roy Miller said Finfrock's death had a noticeably traumatic effect of Hitt, as did an injury to one of her two sons. Miller said Hitt told him her son sustained third-degree burns in a work accident on the same day her mother's body was found.

"The death of her mom really took a toll on her," Miller said. "We talked to her a couple days after, and she seemed like she was in pretty good spirits."

"Lately, it seemed like she didn't want to talk to anybody," he added.

Miller said he was used to speaking with Hitt, whom he described as sweet, thoughtful and dedicated to the students with whom she worked, about 10 to 15 times a week. Miller said he had not seen or heard from her for at least three days before the fire, though her minivan did not appear to have moved.

Hitt was not the only person injured in Sunday's fire. Miller said his wife, Barbara Miller, was treated at Washington County Hospital for smoke inhalation and released. He said the hands of their neighbor, David Moyer, were burned, and he also was treated and released.

Miller said Moyer pulled a screaming Hitt from her burning apartment at approximately 10:15 a.m. Miller said his phone recorded the first three minutes of the ordeal. Moyer called Miller before dropping his phone near the door of Hitt's apartment, Miller said.

Miller said listening to the recording and speaking with Hitt before the ambulance took her away was painful.

"I can't sleep - that's how much chills it brings," Miller said. "I've never seen anything like that."

The Millers' dogs - Drake, 3, and Pebbles, 5 - died when their residence filled with smoke during the blaze, he said.

"Those were the closest things to kids that we had," Miller said. "Everything can be replaced but our dogs."

Barbara Miller said she was able to go into the apartment Monday, only to find the couple had lost nearly everything.

"Our apartment was totally gone," she said. "There's soot and smoke damage everywhere; things were melted; there were holes in the floor."

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