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Silver Spring Mall Settles Suit Over Disabled Woman Trapped During Evacuation

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2005; Page B04

When Katie Savage tells her story about being trapped in a Silver Spring mall during a fire alarm evacuation, her eyes moisten. She does not weep, though, because after living in a wheelchair for most of her life, and having limited use of her arms, fear doesn't make her cry anymore.

But the shrieks and panic outside the Marshalls at City Place Mall that morning still haunt her. In what turned out to be a false alarm, people had trampled past her to evacuate the basement-level store. Savage, 55, was stuck in a hallway, unable to use the stairs, elevator or escalator to reach safety.

A fire alarm shut down elevators and escalators, trapping Katie Savage, who uses a wheelchair, in the mall. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

Savage, of the District, sued Marshalls and City Place in Montgomery County Circuit Court in May and won a partial victory yesterday when her attorneys reached a settlement with the shopping center. They agreed that City Place will develop an evacuation plan for the disabled, which will be created by an outside consultant, attorneys for both sides said last night. The mall also has agreed to improve access at entrances and make restrooms easier to navigate for customers using a wheelchair.

"What happened to me was a wake-up call," said Savage, who has had severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since she was 2 years old.

City Place's attorney, Jonathan Cusson, said the mall was "happy to take the suggestions of Katie Savage on these issues."

Savage has vowed to continue her fight against the other plaintiff, hoping to force a change in the evacuation policies in the more than 600 Marshalls stores nationwide.

Marshalls officials declined to comment on the case, but in legal briefs filed with the court, the store's position is that it was the mall's responsibility to assist Savage that day, not Marshalls's, because the elevators are owned and operated by the mall.

"Marshalls clearly did not have a heightened duty to protect or aid Katie Savage," says a motion filed by the company's attorneys in October.

One of Savage's attorneys, Elaine Gardner, director of the Disability Rights Project law center, counters that both Marshalls and City Place have an obligation to try to direct all shoppers in case of an emergency. "Marshalls dumped them into a space they knew people would be trapped in," Gardener said. "They need to tell people where to go in these types of situations."

Savage said that before she was trapped in the mall, she never thought about protecting herself in an evacuation. "I always thought about the difficulty I have getting into places," she said during a recent interview at her home, which has knee-level stove, refrigerator and lighting fixtures. "It never dawned on me I might have difficulty getting out."

Savage, who was raised in the District, suffers from a medical condition in which her heart stopped growing when she was 7 or 8 years old. Her movement is severely restricted, and aides visit her first-floor apartment in Northwest Washington eight hours a day to prepare her meals, wash her hair, do her laundry and perform other tasks. She likes to go out most days, taking bus rides to familiar places that can accommodate her wheelchair.

The incident that prompted the lawsuit occurred Sept. 3, 2002. Savage got to the mall about 9:45 a.m. that day and decided to look through Marshalls.

An alarm sounded about 10:45. Shoppers were told over the store's intercom to evacuate immediately, which caused a stampede. Savage scooted out as fast as her chair would take her. When she was in the mall's vestibule, she realized that the alarm had turned off the escalator and elevator. People were rushing onto the stairs.

She tried to reenter Marshalls, but an employee pulled down the gate and ran off, she said. Savage sat there, terrified and trapped.

"I don't think people even saw me there," she said. "They were blinded by their fear. They were running and screaming."

About seven other people who were elderly or physically limited were there with her, including a woman with a leg brace. The alarm screeched so loud that they could not speak to each other. Other people were holding their hands to their ears to muffle the sound, something Savage is not strong enough to do.

"I felt ashamed of my disability," she said. "I'd never felt that way before."

After about an hour went by and the fire department realized it was a false alarm, employees came back and reopened the store. Savage went to a restaurant where she knows some of the staff to get a drink of water and calm herself. After that, she went back to Marshalls and bought a throw rug she had been looking at, which is now in her front room.

"Even though you have traumatic experiences, the therapist says you have to go back," Savage said. "You can never give up."

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