One Dead as Fire Displaces Dozens

The fire consumed the wooden balconies and chased firefighters outside before they could make sure all the apartments were empty.
The fire consumed the wooden balconies and chased firefighters outside before they could make sure all the apartments were empty. (By William Budd, Battalion Chief -- Prince George's Fire Department)
By Eric Rich and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 31, 2007

The body of a 43-year-old Prince George's County resident was found after daybreak yesterday in the rubble of an 11-unit condominium building that had been gutted hours earlier by a fast-moving fire.

Authorities said the Forestville blaze, which was reported just after midnight, had consumed much of the building at 7109 Donnell Place, in the Holly Hill Condominiums, by the time firefighters arrived. One firefighter suffered "inhalation burns" while fighting the ferocious blaze, and 50 residents were displaced because of it.

"It burned intensely, extremely intensely. I don't know if I've seen a building more on fire than I've seen this one," fire department spokesman Mark Brady said. "It had a good head start on us, and it put us on the defensive immediately."

Because of the danger of collapse, firefighters had to evacuate the four-story building before they could be certain it was empty, Brady said. Hours later, as they worked through a roster of residents, firefighters realized that they could not account for Dorrick Anthony Payne.

Brady said Payne lived on the terrace level of the building, where the fire is believed to have started. The cause of the fire remained under investigation yesterday, he said, as did the cause and manner of Payne's death.

Neighbors said Payne was quiet and polite. "He didn't bother anybody," Emma Smith said. "He was a nice guy. He had a pleasant voice."

Residents described the fire as a terrifying inferno. Niecy Deschamps said she rushed outside after looking down from her fourth-floor balcony and seeing flames in the area of the corner terrace unit.

"By the time I got downstairs, the flames were higher than the building," she said. "I've never seen flames like that."

Brady said the fire spread quickly in part because of the design of the 1960s-era building, which had wooden balconies and no sprinkler system.

By afternoon, that rear balcony was gone, as were parts of the roof and of an exterior brick wall. Nearby trees appeared to have been cleaved by the heat of the blaze.

The building was deemed structurally unsound, and Brady said it would have to be shored up before investigators could enter it, possibly tomorrow.

Brady said firefighter Tim Ormerod, 26, who has been with the department for two years, inhaled superheated air and was hospitalized in serious condition. The circumstances of the injury are under investigation, Brady said.

Brady said that the complex did not have a central fire alarm system but that individual apartments probably had smoke detectors. Residents who fled the buildings did so without help from firefighters, he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company