It took 45 firefighters 90 minutes Wednesday night to control one of the worst high-rise building fires in recent Arlington history.
The blaze did $1 million damage to the luxurious 12-story Crystal Plaza Apartments at 2111 Jefferson Davis Hwy., injured six firemen and illustrated the difficulty of fighting fires in the growing number of tall buildings erected in Washington's suburbs in recent years.
"It looked like the 'Towering Inferno' for two floors," said Arlington Fire Marshal Frank Kaye. "I don't remember when we had one so bad."
The flames that raced through apartment 406-S, setting off the blaze, were described by one fireman as "like a blowtorch."
At the Crystal City fire, the firefighters said their efforts were compounded by difficulties in getting sufficient water pressure and an open apartment door that allowed smoke to escape and fire to spread rapidly to the building's fourth and fifth floors.
"It was so intense that it had gained so much headway . . . We were fighting a losing battle," said Assistant Fire Chief John Spink.
The origin of the blaze had not been determined last night.
Some residents of the 570-unit building complained that smoke detectors failed to work properly and that they were uncertain about how to react in the face of such a threat -- problems that fire officials said yesterday appear to be common among residents of suburban high rises.
"I kept wondering why I heard no fire alarms, remembering all the times that there had been false fire alarms," said fourth-floor resident Billy Kellum, 49, who was asleep when the fire broke out."It was really frightening."
Kellum said in the past the smoke detection alarm in his apartment had no problem working. "It used to go off from just cigarette smoke at some parties, but it didn't go off this time," he said, standing inside his charred apartment and pointing to the melted alarm.
"People could have fried in there last night," said another tenant, Sheldon C. Johnson. "Some people wouldn't leave their apartments even after I told them there was a fire," Johnson said. "You should run at the first sign of fire."
Fire officials said it is essential that high rises have safety features incorporated into them at the time they are built, to reduce the chances of a fire burning out of control.
The suburban high-rise boom is a recent phenomenon compared to other urban centers. And the newness of the buildings has helped this area avoid a disaster, officials said. Many high rises, however, including Crystal Plaza, were built before Virginia adopted the stringent fire safety code now in effect.
"We've really done about a 180-degree about-face in the regulations on fire and life safety in high rises and buildings in general," said Capt. Ronald M. Peck of the Fairfax County fire marshal's office. He said the rules on the books went into effect in 1976.
Virginia's current fire code, for example, requires high rises to put in water sprinkler systems or fire walls designed to prevent the spreading of flames or smoke. The code's regulations are not retroactive.
The result is that Crystal Plaza and other pre-1976 high rises were not required to put in a sprinkler system. Crystal Plaza did install smoke detectors, a feature that was not required when it was built.
Similarly, the code now regulates the amount of air pressure in stairwells as a way of preventing smoke from escaping to higher floors. Crystal Plaza does not have that feature, according to fire officials.
"I don't want to imply that people in older buildings are not safe," said Fairfax's Peck. "We've had an excellent record as far as fires in high rises. [But] you cannot say that the [pre-1967] buildings are as safe as the ones today because they're not as equipped."
Some safety features that should have worked at Crystal Plaza did not Wednesday night, firefighters said. Officials said they are trying to determine why they had difficulty getting proper water pressure inside the building.
"We were not getting pressure for some reason," said Spink. "Why we were not getting it, we don't know."
The pressure problems could have had nothing to do with the adequacy of the building, he said.
Sidney Glasman, executive vice president for Charles E. Smith Co., which manages seven high rises in Crystal City, said that the smoke alarms are maintained and "should go off."
He said most high-rise fires are caused by careless tenants and are confined to the apartments where they start. "We've rarely had a fire that has spread," he said.
Kaye said officials are also trying to determine why the door of the apartment where the fire started remained open after its occupant fled. Fire regulations require apartment doors to close automatically, he said. It's possible, however, that something might have fallen in front of the door and prevented it from closing, he said.
Fire officials said it is common for high-rise residents to ignore fire alarms and other warnings.
To guard against that, officials said, buildings built since 1976 have been required to have public address systems for use by firemen.
"But there are problems with false alarms," Fairfax Battalion Chief Curtis Miller said. "How do you convince people their lives are in real jeopardy. They are conditioned by so many false alarms to think that nothing will really happen."
Edwin Henry Neal said that when he smelled smoke in a Crystal Plaza apartment Wednesday night, he bolted from the apartment and pounded on doors as he sped down the hall. "One woman said she wasn't going to leave her apartment," he recalled later. "That scared me, and I just ran down the stairs."
One tenant who remained inside his apartment the entire time was Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who lives on the fourth floor a few doors from where the fire broke out. "He just shut his door and sat it out," a Brown aide said later. "He could have been burned up or suffocated," said aide Thelma Stubbs. Brown, however, was not injured.
Down the hall, Brown's neighbor, Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.), stood on his outdoor balcony to watch the flames before walking to safety down a fire exit. "Good Lord, almost caught a cold standing there in the snow in only my pajamas and bare feet," Talmadge told aides yesterday.