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Searchers take 'last step'

February 18, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

CLEAR SPRING - Firefighters, fire marshals and police academy cadets sifted, shoveled and plowed through rubble Thursday looking for any clue that a woman who lived at the now demolished Hicksville Road home might have died when flames engulfed it nearly two weeks ago.

Carol Jean Bank, 55, a tenant at 15033 Hicksville Road - a converted barn near Clear Spring destroyed by fire on Feb. 6 - has not been seen since the blaze that evacuated the home's owners, their children and another tenant.

"This is the last step," Maryland Deputy State Fire Marshal Ed Ernst said. "If we find something in here, it'll put a lot of people at ease. But it's just a process."

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Maryland State Police Trooper 1st Class Russell Plante, who initiated a missing persons investigation for Bank, had search crews, some using dogs or on horses, comb a 600-meter radius around the pile of debris last week looking for the missing woman, to no avail.

She was last seen at her apartment Feb. 6 at about 1 p.m., Plante has said.

Plante said Thursday that he has gotten "not one lead" on Bank's whereabouts. Media coverage and a national missing persons database have turned up no clues. Her bank account and credit cards were flagged but there has been no activity on them since the fire, he said.

Plante has interviewed Bank's brother and brother-in-law. "Their gut feeling is she's in there," he said, pointing to the massive stack of debris.

An interview with the homeowners indicated that "nothing suspicious" was seen at the residence prior to the midnight blaze.

David Dorsey, 42, and his wife Donna Sue Dorsey, 43, own the converted dairy barn and lived there with their three children in the second floor of the two-story structure.

The Dorseys, their children and Billy Nguyen, who rented a ground-floor apartment inside the home, escaped without injury as the fire engulfed the house.

On Thursday, the house looked like a pile of trash, parted in areas, higher in others.

Ernst picked through debris in a large sifter. A few Clear Spring firefighters hauled large buckets of debris and unloaded them into sifters stationed on top of the rubble and to the side of the site.

"We're looking for anything we can determine is a body part," Ernst said.

Plante pulled from the rubble piece of debris that resembled a human femur. It was too big to belong to Bank, who was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed about 100 pounds, he said, but he hosed it down anyway.

"It's probably a piece of PVC pipe or something," he said as he motioned for a family dog near the debris to move.

The area of Bank's bedroom - where the fire started - was cleared of debris.

By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Plante said Bank had not been found. He said he has hope that she might be found when a demolition crew comes in to clear the debris within the next week.

"We found her mail in her room intact, plastic bottles. We've cleared it out," Ernst said.

He said there was about 3 feet of debris around the outside wall of her bedroom, which he planned to dig through.

"I'm pretty confident that it's not an incendiary fire," said Ernst, who had not yet determined the cause of the fire. "She smoked, and we have evidence of two other mattresses with burns on them in storage. She was a smoker, but I haven't made an official determination."

Dogs that sniffed for accelerants turned up nothing, he said.

Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Allen Gosnell said Bank could not have been incinerated in the blaze because the fire would not have been hot enough for long enough.

"It's just not reasonable in a residential setting," he said. "People just don't get consumed in these types of fires."

As Gosnell spoke, workers raked and walked through the puddle of water that covered the foundation of her bedroom. Police academy cadets eyed pieces of concrete and tin and tossed them into a loader that was being navigated around the rubble.

The family dog roamed among the debris, gnawing at Styrofoam cups and pieces of rubber.

"I feel I'm pretty thorough. I try to have all the answers before I leave the scene," Ernst said. "But with a house this size, burnt the way it was, it's possible we missed something."

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