Leisure World shocked by death

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2005

See also: Officials: Sprinklers could have saved life

The community is overwhelmed by the death of the 80-year-old man in his Leisure World apartment Friday evening, the victim of a fire that spread through 12 apartments, injured a firefighter and caused $1.6 million in damage.

‘‘It was horrendous,” said Beverly Baker Pratt, who lives in the same housing organization, Mutual 5, in which the fire occurred. ‘‘We’re very, very lucky it wasn’t our building.”

Aggravated by a stiff breeze, the four-alarm fire started sometime before 7 p.m. and quickly spread through attics, said Pete Piringer, county Fire and Rescue Services spokesman. Approximately 150 firefighters fought for 90 minutes to get the blaze under control.

Joseph M. Walsh, who lived on the floor above where the fire started, succumbed to the smoke while trying to escape, Piringer said. He was found among the rubble of what was once his kitchen, which had fallen through when the floor collapsed, Piringer said. Preliminary autopsy reports indicate he died of smoke inhalation.

‘‘There was not much we could have done,” Piringer said.

Walsh, he said, was probably overwhelmed by the same explosive phenomena believed to have enveloped and momentarily disoriented one of the first firefighters on the scene.

A ‘‘flash over,” the explosion of gases produced by the fire, enveloped the firefighter as he tried to extinguish the blaze. Losing sight of him inside the building, fellow firefighters triggered an emergency distress call. Minutes later he was helped from the building and taken to the hospital with minor burns on his ears.

In all, 17 residents and guests evacuated the two-story, garden-style apartments.

The fire and rescue personnel from Kensington Volunteer Fire Station 25 located close to Leisure World’s Connecticut Avenue entrance were first on the scene. Using ladders in the front and rear of the smoke-choked building, fire officials rescued several people, officials said.

‘‘We made five very, very aggressive rescues at initial moments of fire,” Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr said. ‘‘The first responders acted heroically with limited resources. When they arrived, the people were definitely at risk.”

Investigators theorize the fire accidentally started when a resident turned on the wrong burner on her electric stove while trying to make tea. Sometime after she walked away, a plastic coffeepot on top of the active burner ignited, Piringer said.

The flames, which, as a rule, double every minute, grew quickly before the resident noticed the trouble and called authorities from a neighboring apartment, he said.

After the fire was extinguished, a crew of firefighters remained on the scene throughout the night and next morning.

Most of the dislocated residents were taken in by friends, family and neighbors, said Kevin Flannery, general manager of Leisure World of Maryland.

Working with the Red Cross, the Leisure World social services staff is moving to help the residents get food and lodging. An informational town hall meeting for residents in the senior living community and a centralized coordination point to distribute information to the dislocated are expected to be set up within days, he said on Monday.