A fire that started in the bedroom of a second-floor apartment in Silver Spring injured 17 people early yesterday morning and drove hundreds of apartment residents in bathrobes and bedroom slippers out into the 20-degree weather.
Most of those injured were treated for smoke inhalation and released from Holy Cross and Washington Adventist hospitals. None was injured seriously.
Most other residents of the Georgia Towers apartment building at 8750 Georgia Ave. fled to the Holiday Inn across the street, where they milled around in the lobby, wearing bathrobes, coats, pajamas and blankets.
They complained among themselves about having to go to work in a few hours without much sleep, about the probable smoke damage to their belongings and about some of the apartment buildings' alarms that they said did not work.
Several residents carried their complaints about faulty smoke detectors to fire officials yesterday after the blaze was under control. Some said they pulled fire alarm bells at least two stations in the building and that the bells did not ring.
Other residents said the fire alarms did ring but only for a matter of seconds.
Fire officials said the fire may have caused the electrical system that activates the hallway fire alarms to overheat and short-circuit.
Lt. Leonard King, of the Montgomery County Fire Department said the smoke detectors sounded in the apartment where the fire had occurred and "the surrounding apartments," but that the smoke detectors may not have gone off in certain apartments because there was "not enough smoke" to trigger the detector.
The 2:45 a.m. fire destroyed one second-floor apartment and caused severe damage to the hallway. Smoke spread throughout the rest of the building, depositing a layer of soot over floors and furniture. Fire officials estimated the total damage at $50,000.
A fire investigator said the blaze apparently was caused by a man smoking in bed in his second-floor apartment. The man broke a window in an attempt to throw the burning mattress outside, the investigator said, but the mattress became engulfed in flames and the man fled his apartment, leaving the door open.
One of the people evacuated as a result of the fire, Henry Lee, said he was trapped in his 14th floor apartment because the hallway and stairwell on his floor were filled with smoke. He said many of the people on his floor opened their windows or balcony doors to get air.
Wayne Lee, a representative of Cynwyd, the Pennsylvania firm that owns the building, said there are no air fans in the stairwells to clear out smoke in case of a fire and that such devices were not required by the county code. "Our fire towers (stairwells) are as standard as any in the area," Lee said.
King said the stairwells may have quickly filled with smoke because "there were a lot of elderly people in the building moving at a slower pace and this would tend to hold (the stairwell doors) open longer."
Two hours after the fire started, the apartment residents left their shelter at the Holiday Inn and began returning to the apartment building, where they waited in the lobby for another hour before firemen allowed them to go upstairs.
Many apartment residents said they learned of the fire by smelling smoke, by hearing the fire engines, or by neighbors knocking on their doors.