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Montgomery Weighs Sprinkler Retrofitting

Fire Took 2 Lives in Older High-Rise

By Tim Craig and Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page B01

Montgomery County officials announced yesterday they will push to require that older high-rise apartment buildings in the county be equipped with sprinkler systems, a measure they believe would help prevent a repeat of Thursday's deadly high-rise fire in Silver Spring.

Chief Thomas W. Carr said he will send proposed regulations to the County Council before the end of the month aimed at forcing dozens of apartment buildings constructed before 1990 to install sprinklers.

Two people were killed in a fire in their home at the Blair East Apartment building in Silver Spring. The building does not have sprinklers. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

Carr's proposal follows by one day the deaths of longtime car dealer John C. Seidel, 75, and his wife, LaNita, 90, in a fire on the 11th floor of the Blair East Apartments. The building had no sprinklers.

"This is to limit the potential for future lives to be lost," Carr said of his proposal. "We will maximize this catastrophic event into a positive to make sure it is less likely to occur."

The Apartment and Office Building Association, which represents building owners, said it will support the proposal, to be implemented over several years. Owners would pay for the sprinklers.

Such regulations have been under consideration for some time.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, it would cost $14 million to $20 million to outfit a building similar to the 400-unit Blair East with sprinklers. Costs could be higher if the project required asbestos or lead paint removal, officials said.

State law requires high-rise buildings constructed after 1990 to have sprinklers, but local officials determine whether older buildings should be updated.

About 80 of the 1,500 high-rise apartment buildings in the county are not equipped with sprinklers, county fire and rescue officials said. The proposal does not address condominium buildings.

County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said Carr's plan does not go far enough, so he will propose legislation Monday to require all older high-rise buildings, including condominium structures, to be fitted with sprinklers.

Fire investigators continue to look into the cause of the Blair East fire and what they say are fire safety violations at the building.

Carr said discarded "smoking materials" in the Seidels' apartment caused the fire. After examining burn patterns, officials said they think the fire began in a corner of the living room, in an unspecified piece of furniture.

As flames traveled across the room, they shattered the glass door leading to the balcony, but the concrete walls and floor prevented the fire from spreading to other apartments, Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue, said.

The evacuation alarm did not ring, even after firefighters and residents pulled handles on wall-mounted alarms. Firefighters had to go to door-to-door to alert residents.

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