An early morning fire in a resident's room at Morningside House of Leesburg forced the 62 elderly residents of the assisted living facility on Harrison Street to evacuate for about seven hours Tuesday, and one person was hospitalized.
The 77-year-old woman who lived in the apartment where the fire started was admitted to Loudoun Hospital Center on Tuesday morning and released by the end of the day, according to Loudoun County fire officials. The woman, whose identity was not released, had first- and second-degree burns on her legs, fire officials said.
The cause of the 8:15 a.m. blaze has not been determined, fire officials said. It was extinguished by the facility's automatic sprinkler system and did not spread beyond the resident's apartment on the first floor of the four-story building.
"It was a small fire in the corner of the room," said Jeff Flippo, chief of the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Services Fire Marshal's Division. "We haven't gotten everything pinpointed yet."
Morningside's director of food services had just finished serving the morning meal when the fire alarm went off and he ran upstairs, rescuing the 77-year-old woman from her smoke-filled room.
"I just grabbed her and carried her out," said Gilbert Lewis, 27, of Leesburg. "The adrenaline just kicked in. I couldn't believe it happened. I'm just glad she made it."
About 50 residents were transported by Loudoun County vans to the Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company's hall on Loudoun Street, where six members of the Leesburg VFD's Ladies Auxiliary served them coffee and doughnuts, and the afternoon program--featuring Roxie and Cheyenne, two macaws bred in captivity--went on as planned.
About 30 residents were picked up by relatives for an overnight stay. The others were able to return to Morningside about 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Morningside officials said the orderly response to the fire was aided by the facility's sophisticated sprinkler equipment, the calmness of the staff members--including two nurses and four residents aides--and the residents' own familiarity with fire evacuation procedures.
The licensing requirements for the facility, which opened in October 1993 and is owned and operated by Morningside Developments LLC, of Middleburg, call for monthly fire drills and an annual evacuation exercise, said Julie Franklin, executive director of Morningside of Leesburg, which is one of five Morningside facilities.
Residents must be able to walk down stairs to qualify to live in an assisted living facility, since elevators cannot be used during a fire.
The evacuation of the residents of the Leesburg facility--where the average age is 83--was conducted floor by floor, beginning with the first floor and moving up, and was completed in a little more than an hour.
"The seniors, the staff, everybody did it the way they were supposed to," said Flippo. "That's why they have drills. It just was basically a textbook situation: no panic. And again that's the training, and the staff just did an excellent job."
The fire at Morningside contrasts sharply with fires in communities for the elderly during the 1980s and earlier, when the installation of sprinkler systems in retirement homes was not widespread and fires often resulted in fatalities.
In the fall of 1989, a fire at the Shenandoah Homes retirement community in Roanoke killed four elderly residents and injured at least 19. It was the second fatal fire in 13 years at Shenandoah Homes, which had smoke detectors but no sprinkler system.
Also that fall, 12 residents were killed in a fire at a Norfolk rehabilitation and convalescent center that also lacked an automatic sprinkler system.
When a $1 million fire occurred that fall in the Sommerset Retirement Community in Sterling, the facility's automatic sprinkler system kept the fire from spreading into living quarters and enabled all 73 residents to escape.
On Tuesday morning, Loudoun firefighters who responded to the alarm at Morningside did not have to use fire hoses to extinguish the blaze and were able to devote themselves to assisting residents in packing overnight bags--in case they were unable to return to their homes Tuesday--and helping them walk out of the building.
"I think the most rewarding part was how calm everybody was," Franklin said. "The staff was calm, and the firefighters were great. They got the job done, but they didn't alarm anybody."
Lewis, the food services director, said he was cleaning up after serving breakfast when he heard the fire alarm go off about 8:15 a.m. He quickly left the kitchen and headed upstairs.
"I smelled smoke, and I was like, 'This is for real,' " said Lewis, who has worked at Morningside for six years.
After reaching the first floor, Lewis and a residents aide ran down the hall until they found the door from which smoke was escaping. Lewis said he ran in and found the resident crouching on the floor, getting soaked by the water from the overhead sprinklers.
Lewis said he picked her up, held her to his chest "like a baby" and carried her out a fire exit to the parking lot. Firefighters wrapped the woman in blankets and put her on a couch while they waited for an ambulance, Lewis said.
Fifty of the residents boarded the vans and headed off to the fire hall, accompanied by their medical charts and medications.
Far from being upset, some residents even found the day a welcome relief from the usual routine.
As Eleanor Genetti, 90, and Edith Cronise, 92, situated themselves in the back seat of Genetti's daughter's car, they giggled and joked.
"They're good friends," said Genetti's daughter, Beverly Perry, as they departed for her home in McLean.
CAPTION: An early-morning fire did not spread beyond a first-floor apartment in the four-story Morningside House of Leesburg.