Walter Bell, the founder of W. Bell & Co., one of the area's longtime retail chains before it went out of business in 1991, died yesterday after being pulled from the burning remains of his Potomac home.

The 84-year-old businessman ran a 20-store catalogue-showroom specializing in jewelry and household items that thrived for decades until an onslaught of price-cutting competitors forced its closure.

Montgomery County firefighters were summoned to Bell's home at 1 a.m. yesterday by a security firm that reported a fire alarm sounding inside the house.

Fire officials said they arrived at 9012 Belmart Rd. about six minutes after the call for help was received and found heavy fire and smoke pouring from the two-story rambler. The fire caused about $1 million in damage to the home, which officials said was all but destroyed.

After contacting the fire department, ADT Security agents placed a call to the burning home and spoke with Walter Bell, who they told fire officials seemed disoriented and confused. ADT agents then placed a third call to one of Bell's relatives who rushed to the scene and alerted firefighters that Bell was probably still inside the burning structure.

Firefighters called for reinforcements--as many as 75 firefighters and paramedics were on the scene when the fire was put out an hour later--and found Bell lying in a smoke-filled first-floor bathroom, in cardiac arrest. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and Bell was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.

The cause of Bell's death has yet to be determined, but officials said smoke inhalation was probably a factor. One of the first effects of smoke inhalation, they said, is severe disorientation.

"Someone can be right in front of a door or window and not be able to exit it because of the confusion," said Jim Resnick, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.

Although investigators are still studying the cause of the fire, officials said it probably started inside an electronics entertainment center in the home's first-floor family room.

Bell lived alone. His wife, Dorothy, co-founder and former vice president of W. Bell & Co., died of cancer in 1997.

The couple were married in 1938. In 1950, they founded the Rockville-based company in a one-room showroom. Over the next 40 years, the company grew to include outlets in Baltimore, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington.

The stores sold a variety of goods, from jewelry and china to hair curlers and fax machines. But the proliferation of specialty stores and heavy discounting by department stores crippled the chain. After decades in business, W. Bell closed its doors in 1991.

Bell is survived by a son, Frederic Bell; a daughter, Joan Bell; and two grandsons.