COLLEGE PARK – A massive five-alarm fire erupted Monday morning at a six-story apartment building under construction in College Park near the University of Maryland.
The fire closed down Baltimore Avenue for more than eight hours, resulting in major traffic problems as well as closing down the university and cancelling classes for the day.
The incident was the largest suppression effort and the highest fire loss estimate in the history of the county fire/EMS department.Estimated fire loss is $40 million.
The fire was reported shortly after 9:30 a.m. in the 4700 block of Berwyn House Road just off Baltimore Avenue.
Volunteer Fire Chief William Corrigan of the College Park Fire Department, which is located a block from the fire, was first on the scene.
“When I arrived I reported heavy fire coming from the fifth floor with fire extending to the top floor,” he said. “Knowing the construction of the building, I quickly requested a second alarm.”
Due to heavy fire conditions and with the wood frame construction, the fire extended to the top floor and to the roof and spread the entire length of the building resulting in three more alarms sounding. The alarms brought in more than 250 other firefighters from Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, as well as units from the District of Columbia Fire Department.
With heavy smoke coming from the building and it being so intense, residents from the Spellman House, a senior citizen’s apartment building which is located across the street from the fire, had to be relocated for several hours to a near-by community center.
Classes at the university had to be canceled for the day due to heavy smoke covering campus and students having problems breathing.
“Our biggest problem was just getting water on the fire,” said Mark Brady, spokesperson for the Prince George's County Fire Department. “Firefighters had to walk up to the fifth and sixth floors and get their lines in place and that takes time. The building did not have any safety measures in place yet, such as a sprinkler system and fire doors, which resulted in the fire spreading quickly.”
Another problem the firefighters had with reaching the fire was the design of the building. It is built next to a hill, providing no access to the rear which could have allowed ladder trucks to place their ladder pipes to help extinguish the fire on the roof.
Fire crews had to go into a residential neighborhood and run hose lines into the woods that overlooked the roof in an attempt to put out the blaze.
“At one point a partial collapse of the roof occurred, causing the air conditioner, which was just installed, to collapse to the sixth floor,” said Prince George's County Fire Department Fire Chief Ben Barksdale. “We were lucky it did not cause a pancake effect resulting in other floors collapsing.”
The building was to house both residential and commercial units and was scheduled to open in late summer or early fall. Many of the would-be residents were university students that had to put down a deposit for an apartment.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries. One was treated on the scene and the other was transported to a local hospital where he was treated and released.
“It took firefighters over eight hours to bring the fire under control,” Brady said. “Firefighters may have to remain on the scene over night extinguishing hot spots and in case the fire rekindles.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation.