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Tenants deal with losses after fire

July 16, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN

heatherk@herald-mail.com

At noon on Friday, Cammie Zello had a feeling things finally were looking up.

After a spell of "floating" homelessness, she finally had moved into her own apartment, a basement unit at 614 W. Washington St., a week before, and was in her own kitchen cooking noodles for her friend, Cathy Reed, who was napping.

By 2 p.m., all that was left of this new life was a metal cage containing her fluffy white rabbit, Stinky, rescued from her burning building by "two nice people," along with a cardboard box containing her two turtles.

"I lost everything," she said from across the street, watching the yellowish smoke billowing from the blackened interior through glassless windows. "I'm sure it will be demolished. I just moved into it. I had a big supper cooking."

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Zello and Reed were two of at least five people in the apartment building when it caught fire Friday afternoon. They were joined across the street by neighbors and spectators who gathered behind the caution tape to watch the firefighters battle the blaze.

Witnesses described seeing lightning and hearing a loud bang.

"I was coming out of Wal-Mart when I saw lightning strike and I followed the smoke," said Cheryl Bair of Smithsburg. "You could hear it crack - a big boom."

Harry Clark was working at J&H Auto Repairs across the street when he heard the bang.

"It shook the garage," he said. "It scared us - we jumped. We thought something had blown up."

Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker said he didn't know the cause of the fire and that the Hagerstown fire marshal is investigating.

Meanwhile, in the apartment, 21-year-old tenant Melissa Taylor had been watching television in the living room while her 3-year-old son, Seth Clobber, played in his room.

After the bang, she said her roommate, Theresa Hodges, ran into the living room and told her there was a fire.

The two ran into Seth's second-floor bedroom, where Taylor said they saw small flames in a laundry basket and on the floor.

Taylor began by stomping on the flames on the floor, trying to contain the fire to the laundry basket, but quickly realized that was not working. When Hodges yelled, "What should I do?" Taylor said to get out.

"The first thing going through my head was, if you can't put it out, get out," Taylor said.

Sitting on the sidewalk changing Seth's diaper with a fresh one from her car, Taylor appeared calm, and Seth nodded calmly, almost happily, when asked if he had seen the fire.

"I've always learned not to panic during it - panic afterward," Taylor said. "Because if you panic, there's a better chance of losing your kids."

Taylor said she felt lucky to have gotten out, and even more lucky that Seth had gotten out unharmed.

"I think that if his door was closed, he wouldn't have gotten out at all," Taylor said.

Taylor and Zello said they also were lucky to have the support of their neighbors, many of whom reached out to both the victims and the firefighters. Bair, a manager at a pizza restaurant, invited the firefighters for pizza afterwards, and Clark brought out 20 bottles of water from his refrigerator for the firefighters, who sweated under their uniforms in the humidity.

"They've been really good," Clark said. "These guys don't get enough credit for what they do."

As Zello cried over the loss of her new home, neighbors offered her hugs, support and the use of their cell phones.

Finally, Mindy McNamee, who lives on the adjoining Madison Street, put a gentle hand on Zello's shoulder and asked, "Is there anything I can do to help you?"

Before long, McNamee's children were helping her to carry Stinky's cage to her house, where the rabbit could get out of the smoke, and McNamee would offer Zello fresh clothes and supplies from her garage.

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