In all, 17 escaped from the flame-slashed, two-story co-op. They walked or stumbled Friday night into the cold, smoke-choked air, their homes in the Montgomery County retirement community lost to flames and one of their neighbors dead, witnesses and fire officials said.
Many cried as they found safety, said neighbors who witnessed the fire at Leisure World of Maryland's complex in the Aspen Hill area.
The victim was identified as Joseph M. Walsh, 80, a retired lawyer who had moved to Leisure World recently to be closer to children in this area.
He lived in the apartment above the one where the blaze began. The woman in that apartment was making tea and turned on the wrong electric burner, igniting a plastic coffeepot, fire officials said. As the fire spread, she went next door for help, then returned to her apartment as neighbors called for aid. She was able to escape uninjured through a patio door.
Walsh's floor collapsed, plunging him into the apartment below, where his body was found several hours later.
Walsh, who had lived much of his life in Montgomery County, had resided in Pennsylvania before coming back here within the past three months with his wife, Clara. She had been ill and had not been able to return to the apartment after a recent hospitalization. Walsh had spent most of his time at her bedside, and many of his fellow residents did not know him.
A preliminary autopsy showed he died of smoke inhalation, fire officials said.
Witnesses described din and confusion as the sobs of evacuated neighbors mingled with the sounds of rescue Friday night. Firefighters hollered for a trapped comrade. Glass shattered. Wood sparked and snapped. Firetrucks blocked parking lot exits, forcing residents to stay put or walk out if they wanted to leave.
A grandmother and four family members emerged from the burning building to be escorted by a Montgomery firefighter to the front door of a neighbor they didn't know. They found shelter there for the night, said Beverly Pratt, 79, a resident of an adjacent building. Her friend Maxine Wachtler took in the family.
"She took the folks in to keep them warm," said Pratt, who has lived at Leisure World for four years. "She didn't even know their names."
The Red Cross helped relocate other evacuated residents. None was able to return to their homes yesterday, Leisure World spokeswoman Ruth Clark said.
Yesterday, dozens of curious residents stood near the blackened buildings. Firefighters had worked until 3 a.m., combing through the wreckage in search of hot spots. Officials said high winds fueled the fire, which spread quickly and trapped a firefighter. He was trying to extinguish the blaze in Walsh's apartment when there was a "flashover" of flames caused by an open door or broken window in the apartment below.
Firefighters retreated but soon realized what happened and sounded an alarm. The firefighter eventually scrambled to safety and was treated at a hospital for burns and released.
His gear was damaged from temperatures that reached at least 1,200 degrees, fire officials said.
"The fire was extremely intense," Montgomery Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr. said. "With the wind, it was like a blowtorch."
Pete Piringer, a fire department spokesman, said more than 150 firefighters responded to the scene. They extinguished the blaze in about an hour.
Walsh is the county's fifth fire fatality of the year, fire officials said. All the victims have been elderly. Last year, four people died in fires.
Carr said fire officials had launched education campaigns to help educate elderly residents about how to prevent and escape fires.
He said he will ask the management of Leisure World to help set up a meeting to discuss fire dangers with residents.
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis and staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.