1 killed, 3 injured in fire at Silver Spring apartment building


Doting Ogunbajo displays a video he took of the building on fire earlier. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
April 2, 2013

A fire broke out in an apartment complex in Silver Spring early Tuesday, killing one resident, injuring three others and forcing the evacuation of the entire building.

The fire broke out before 6:51 a.m. Tuesday on the sixth floor of Montgomery Towers, a sprawling complex in the 400 block of Silver Spring Avenue. More than 100 firefighters responded to the blaze, using a ladder to rescue residents trapped on upper floors and escorting residents, some still in their nightclothes, to safety.

Edward Mager, 63, was seriously burned and died at a hospital, according to the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. A 6-year-old child and two women, one of them 79, were injured and taken to hospitals, but they are expected to survive, Assistant Chief Scott Graham said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Many residents were initially alerted by neighbors knocking on their doors and yelling from the parking lot. Several said they heard a big explosion and saw burning materials and glass falling from the sixth-floor apartment where the fire broke out — the unit where Mager had been living by himself, residents said.

Firefighters found Mager unconscious in the hall outside his apartment, officials said.

“The lower part of his feet, his hair — everything was burned,” resident Mekuria Fekad, 57, said.

Residents said a similar but smaller fire broke out about two years ago in the same apartment where Tuesday’s fire had begun. Graham said the department had no record of a previous fire in the unit.

Mike Shifaw, 35, said he heard his neighbor knock on the door and immediately left the building with his 3-day-old newborn and 5-year-old niece, returning once more for his fiancée and her elderly parents. He saw two elderly women stranded on the upper floors. They couldn’t escape of the smoke, but firefighters later rescued them.

“People were being carried out and banging on windows to be rescued,” resident Diane Robertson said.

Once the fire was out, residents huddled in cars to keep warm and phoned friends and relatives as officials evaluated whether they could return home.

The 61-unit Montgomery Towers has a record of code violations, said Ricardo Shepherd, a fire inspector on the scene, but he offered no further details. He said the building’s fire alarms were working properly and were triggered after a resident pulled a lever in the building.

The fire department declined to elaborate on the building’s record. The landlord could not be reached for comment, and the building’s property manager declined to answer questions.

The Red Cross was on the scene to assess whether residents needed temporary shelter and to provide food, coffee and transportation to a recreation center. Gretta Siebentritt, who lives next door to the complex, opened her home to provide breakfast and an impromptu day care for evacuated residents, many of whom were young children and elderly people. “Use the house as yours,” she told the evacuated residents as they sipped tea and ate eggs. “If you need to come on back, come on back.”

About 11 a.m., some residents were allowed in to gather a few belongings while utility companies arrived to assess the damage. A large pile of charred debris lay on the ground below the apartment that caught fire.

Residents were still prohibited from returning to the building as of early Tuesday evening, Red Cross officials said.

Investigators said the fire resulted in about $400,000 in damage. Mager’s death marks the second fire fatality in Montgomery this year, officials said.

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