Prince George's County's firefighters buried their colleague, Thomas L. Graves, yesterday. His death in an explosion last week was the first of a career fireman in the line of duty in county history.
Even as the burial service for Graves was conducted, homeless people picked through the charred remains of their homes, and officials helped more than 300 persons who had lost all their belongings in one of the worst five-day periods in Prince George's recent history. In this period, four fires left one person dead -- Graves -- and caused an estimated $1.5 million in damages.
By the end of yesterday, county officials said more than enough apartments had been located in the vicinity to provide new homes for those displaced by the fires. One official said that efforts were being made to obtain flexible lease agreements for the fire victims, many of whom are low-income workers who could probably not afford to pay another security deposit.
County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, calling the series of fires a calamity for the county, said he feared that the publicity surrounding the fires might result in additional fires being set. At least one of the fires, the early Sunday morning blaze at Bryant Woods apartments in Lanham, was caused by arson.
The Bryant Woods blaze, which left 140 homeless and caused $800,000 damage, was the last of the four fires that hit the county between last Wednesday through Sunday. The first, an explosion at the Glenn Dale apartment complex, resulted in the death of fireman Graves, displaced 36 families, and caused $250,000 damage.
On Friday the first of the Bryant Woods apartment fires forced 35 residents to flee and caused $400,000 damage. An early morning fire the next day at a Bladensburg apartment building displaced 10 families and caused $10,000 damage.
Outside the resident manager's office at the Bryant Woods apartment complex on 85th Avenue in New Carrollton yesterday, property manager Susan Voorhees advised a group of confused residents who had been forced from the building that police had cordoned off the area and the residents were not allowed to return to their apartments.
"There's a big load of donated clothing you can fish through," she told one elderly man, George Shepherd, a disable veteran who said he loss all his belongings in the blaze.
"My wife sprained her ankle falling when the fire began," Shepherd said later. "Right now we are staying with her family. I'm going to buy me a house. No more apartments."
One county housing official estimated that less than 10 percent of the more than 100 families forced from their apartments were insured. "Most residents believe the management insures them, but it's usually just for the building structure, not for the content," he said.
According to Pat Jermon, director of disaster services for the Hyattsville office of the Red Cross, 40 families were interviewed yesterday and only one had any sort of insurance. "That was on a set of encyclopedias he had," she said.
A man watching the clean-up operation at Bryant Woods remarked that he had been "totally wiped out. I lost everything from the time I got married. I wish I could get at the man who set the fire because I'd probably kill him."
According to county prosecutors, William Mark Wrubleski, the 25-year-old construction worker who allegedly set the Bryant Woods fire, failed to post bond at a court hearing yesterday, and still was being held at the county detention center in Upper Marlboro.
At the Glenn Dale apartment complex, located at 9923 Good Luck Rd., tenant Barbara Lee supervised movers who were taking her and her children's furniture into storage while she moved her family in with her mother.
Lee, whose bedroom window is located just below a high brick wall that is braced with wooden planks to keep it from falling, said the apartment had become unlivable. She pointed to a gas pipe that was exposed in her room about 10 feet from where she slept.
"That's where they capped off the gas," she said, referring to the natural gas leak that set off two closely spaced explosions that blasted the apartment complex last Wednesday.
Services for Thomas Graves killed in the Glenn Dale apartment fire were held at the West Lanham Hills Fire Station. Officials estimated that about 750 firemen from other jurisdictions attended the funeral, and participated in the 250-vehicle motor-cade.
Fighting the three succeeding fires after Graves had been killed was particularly difficult for Graves' colleagues, according to one firefighter.
"With every decision there was the thought that death is up close.' he said. "Everyone took special care that nobody else would be put in that same position."