Man, 27, killed in Prince George's fire; dozens homeless

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 9:44 PM

A 27-year-old man was killed early Saturday in a three-alarm fire that swept quickly through two brick buildings in a Suitland apartment complex, leaving at least 24 families homeless as the sun began to rise, Prince George's County fire officials said.

Officials have not yet identified the man who died, and Mark Brady, a department spokesman, said the fire appeared to have originated in the man's ground-floor unit at the Carriage Hill Apartments, a sprawling complex of 54 buildings at 3362 Curtis Dr. Three civilians and three firefighters suffered minor injuries from the fire and thick smoke, which engulfed interior stairwells and hallways, and forced many residents onto their second- and third-floor balconies, where firefighters used ladders to rescue them.

"There was so much smoke you couldn't see," said Nichelle Willis, 27, who escaped in her underclothes through a sliding glass patio door. "The guy upstairs was screaming, 'Help me, help me.' I just started to cry."

About 100 firefighters and paramedics responded to the fire about 4:30 a.m. By then, the flames had spread from the ground floor upward, Brady said. Eventually, several floors and the roof of that building collapsed. The fire spread to a neighboring building and partially destroyed its roof before firefighters brought the blaze under control about 7 a.m., Brady said.

"I would say some of the residents rescued were certainly in a life-or-death situation," Brady said, adding that the cause of the fire is under investigation. The buildings did not have sprinklers, which were not required when they were built, probably in the 1970s, he said.

The injured firefighters and civilians were taken to a hospital and were expected to be treated and released. Two firefighters had minor burns on their ears and shoulders, and a third suffered from a spike in blood pressure. Two people had minor burns and a third suffered from smoke inhalation, Brady said.

The rest of the displaced and dazed residents, many of whom did not have renter's insurance, gathered Saturday morning at a community center. There, the Red Cross and the complex managers, Southern Management, were trying to sort out new living arrangements in vacant apartments in the complex or elsewhere.

Family members and neighbors stopped to visit.

About noon, Willis, an occupational nurse, began taking stock of her loss and her luck.

Gone was $1,300 from a paycheck she had cashed Friday. So was her identification and all of her clothes, including her uniform, which made her wonder what she would do about work on Monday. Gone also was the furniture that she and her girlfriend recently purchased to start a new life together in the apartment.

"Every single, solitary thing - all I have is the clothes on my back," she said, noting gratefully that the shirt, pants, socks and shoes were given to her by strangers. "But it's your life. I'm so thankful I have life."

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