Twenty-six persons were hospitalized yesterday, two of them with serious injuries, when a fire swept through a second floor corridor of a Silver Spring nursing home just after breakfast.
Investigators said arson is suspected as the cause of the blaze at the University Nursing Home, 901 Arcola Avenue.
Eleven of those hospitalized had been released by early last night. The 15 persons remaining were all suffering from smoke inhalation except one who had received burns.
Fire officials said that a "nearly perfect" evacuation by more than 100 nursing home employes, rescue and fire personnel and volunteers averted what could have been a major catastrophe.
The fire started shortly before 8:30 a.m. in a second floor room at the end of the South Wing of the two-story brick building. Fewer than 20 of the 139 nursing home residents live in this corridor.
According to Henrietta Patrick, the nursing aide on duty in the corridor at the time, the residents had just finished breakfast and the dorrs to their rooms were open.
"I heard the [fire] alarm," Patrick said, and rushed out of the room where a patient was being fed.
She heard three staff members rushing down the hall, screaming "I smell smoke."
"I went to [the end room]. I saw red and yellow smoke billowing out of it. I tried to get into the room but couldn't get very close, so the four of us started closing the doors right away."
Following procedures which had been practiced in regular drills, the staff members closed the fire-resistant doors to the patients' rooms to protect them from the smoke.
"While we were closing the doors," Patrick said, "the smoke got thick and black. If we had stayed we would have passed out. We had to run out of the area. We had to feel our way to the [smoke] door [separating the corridor from the rest of the floor] because it was so dark."
The smoke door, which had been installed along with a new alarm system and smoke detectors only two years ago, is credited with containing most of the smoke within the single corridor. Only the room where the fire began, and the corridor itself, were damaged.
Meanwhile, the residents whose rooms faced other corridors on the second floor were rushed into their rooms from the hallways by the 30 nurses and assistants working the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift.
"They shut the door on me," said Louise Reed, 79, a patient on the second floor West corridor. "At 8:24 I heard people in the hall yelling 'Oh my God' and coughing and sneezing, so I knew it wasn't just a drill. Then I started praying. I said 'Oh Lord, when are the engines coming?'"
The call came in to the Montgomery Fire and Rescue Service at 8:33 a.m.
Four minutes later the first fireman arrived on the scene, and within 10 minutes, more than 20 emergency vehicles were present and all the patients had been evacuated from the fire corridor. A Silver Spring fire aldder company sent firemen to the roof of the building, where they chopped away the top of the room where the fire had started, to allow an outlet for the smoke.
Firemen pointing hoses from the roof and from within the building doused the fire within a minute, according to firemen present, stopping hte blaze before it had moved halfway down the corridor.
At the same time, rescue squads from surrounding areas threw ladders to the second-story windows and, hoisting the elderly citizens on their backs, brought almost 50 to the lawn below.
"They pulled me out of my bedroom and almost dragged me out," said Letitia Turchi, 83.
While most residents stayed within the safe areas of the building, many lying nervously on mattresses, some were rushed to hospitals, and about 45 were taken by bus to St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church a few blocks away. There, relatives who had been prevented from entering the home clamored to discover what had happened.
The residents, who had reacted calmly during the evacuation, were serenaded by a rescue man playing the piano.
By 11 p.m., area volunteer agencies had rounded up a list of 12 institutions with over 90 beds that could be used to relocate any University Home residents forced out by the fire. But, according to Jean Horan, assistant administrator of the home, only 17 residents will need other accommodatioins.
Montgomery County fire Capt. William McLaughlin said investigators suspect arson as the cause of the fire, but he did not elaborate.
The man in whose room the fire started had been in the first floor dining area since 7 a.m., according to his sister, Rose Pach. Staff members and residents characterized the man as "a collector. He collects napkins, he collects papers, he collects books," said one. "He had a little of everything in that room," said E. Conlon, a registered nurse.
The evacuation itself was, "in a scale of 0 to 100, a definite 99," said Sgt. Paul Mindte, of the Montgomery Fire Department's division of fire prevention. Mindte had visited the home just two weeks earlier to advise the staff in proper emergency procedures.
"If they hadn't closed those doors there would have been many deaths."
Coming only two days after a fire killed nine persons in a Northwest Washington group-care home, the fire at the University Nursing Home inevidably drew comparisons. There is no sprinkler system within the corridors of University, which was built in 1965, but such a system is not required by law in any but new buildings, and the walls and doors are considered fire resistant.
Since the beginning of 1978, at least six inspections by state and county fire marshals have been conducted at the nursing home, the latest on March 2. There were "no noted fire code violations in the building at the time of the fire," Lt. Frank Gaegler said, and inspectors found only minor problems, such as too much lint in the laundry room. CAPTION: Picture 1, A resident of the University Nursing Home is aided after being rescued from a smokey fire. AP; Picture 2, Evacuated nursing home residents wait on lawn for transport to a hosipital. By Steve Eisen for The Washington Post; Picture 3, Rescued patients at the University Nursing Home in Silver Spring are lined up in wheel chairs awaiting transport after fire swept through one corridor. By James A. Parcell-The Washington Post