Blanche Heim, 87, sat on the sofa in her living room, gasping for air and pointing at her bedroom. "I'm afraid to go into that ice box," she said.
Along with many of the residents of the 158 unit Parkland Village Apartments in Suitland, Heim has been without heat for more than a week.
Some of the residents who are elderly or disabled are heating their rooms with their ovens. Some have been forced out by the cold.
Blanche Heims daughter, Erma Fulton, shifted her to the living room of the $250-a-month apartment they share to sleep on Friday night. Heim uses oxygen because she has trouble breathing and has a large tank next to her bed. In the living room, she says the electric heater makes it harder for her to breathe.
"She woke up in the middle of the night," said Fulton. "She yelled, quick, quick, I can't breathe."
On Saturday Blanche Heim spent most of the day siting on the sofa, wondering when she would be able to return to her bedroom.
The residents of the low level, flat-topped aged red-brick apartment buildings near Silver Hill Road and Pennsylvania Avenue are mostly middle- or low-income elderly persons.
A resident manager contacted yesterday said that a tube in the heating system had ruptured, forcing oil into the heating lines. "We've had a chemist and a master plumber working on it," he said. "We're doing everything we possibly can do."
Attempts to reach the owner of the complex through the resident manager and county housing inspectors were unsuccessful.
The residents complained that the heat has now been off for about 10 days.
Some have been able to cope by using extra blankets or dressing more warmly, but for the majority of the elderly it has not been an easy time.
"This seems really silly," said one man, a retired courthouse employe who was using his oven to heat the apartment. "How would you like to be without heat?"
The man said he had to move his 73-year-old sister, a cancer patient, out of the apartment building because it was too cold.
"In my bedroom, it was below 60 degrees," the woman said, asking not to be identified. Many of the apartment's residents said they were afraid to complain publicly about the conditions, fearing they might be ask to leave.
County inspectors contacted over the weekend said the apartment complex was cited for lack of heat last week.
"The county code says that an apartment manager must provide temperatures of at least 70 degrees," said Charles Deegan, assistant to the director of the county's licenses and inspections department.
The resident manager, who also declined to be identified, said that heat had been restored to some apartments on ground-level floors. He said he was aware, however, that other residents had been forced to leave because of the extreme conditions.
Housing inspectors warned that residents using ovens as heaters should not wear flammable clothes because of the danger of fire.
Some residents said they stuffed newspaper in the cracks under doors and around windows for better insulation.
"The Lord was with us," said one woman, "it wasn't a drastically cold week. But I'm going to hell for sure much as I've cussed. At least it would be warm down there."
One man said he tried to stave off the cold by leaving the hot water faucet on in his shower.
It steamed up the whole room," he said. "Then the smoke alarm went off. What a mess."