‘One of the worst case scenarios’: Montgomery Co. fire chief offers update on deadly Silver Spring fire

The three-alarm fire in a Silver Spring, Maryland, high-rise that led to the death of a 25-year-old woman was accidental, but Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein told council members that it’s unlikely his department will be able to pin down the precise cause.

In an appearance before three Montgomery County Council committees on Tuesday, Goldstein noted that electronic devices and candles were “present” in the apartment, but did not say if that’s how the fire started.

“We’ve had a rough year” when it comes to the seriousness of fires, Goldstein told council members.

“In a three week period of time, there were five fire fatalities and four fires in Montgomery County,” Goldstein said.

The Arrive Apartment complex’s lack of sprinklers generated a push to update state law on the subject. Under current Maryland law, high-rises like Arrive have until 2033 to get retrofitted for sprinklers.

Automatic sprinklers have been required in new construction in Montgomery County since 2004, and Goldstein said they were integral in preventing the spread of fire in residences.

“Residential sprinklers do provide occupants the extra time to get out,” but he said they were not specifically intended to extinguish fires that “fully involve” a room.

But he added that the Feb. 18 fire at Arrive was able to escalate to a three-alarm status due to a variety of factors that combined to create a lethal incident.

First, he explained, the fire broke out in a seventh floor apartment and the occupants attempted to put out the fire themselves.

Goldstein also said a door to the outdoor balcony area had been left open, along with the unit’s door to the hallway. The effect, he explained, fueled the fire.

“The deadly products of smoke and gases,” he said, were allowed to spread “unchecked into the hallway on the seventh floor.”

Another stairwell door was also left open, “which led to a significant spread of the smoke products throughout the rest of the building,” said Goldstein.

The first report to 911 came from a neighbor on the eighth floor, above the source of the fire.

Goldstein said that by the time firefighters reached the apartment and were working their way up the stairwells, residents of the 480 units were trying to evacuate.

“As our crews were ascending the stairs, there were dozens, hundreds of people exiting the building and the stairwells were already becoming clogged with smoke.”

Goldstein said that in the Silver Spring fire, “We had residents, in their attempt to exit the building, collapsing on firefighters as they were crawling down the hallway, as they were trying to advance the hose line from the stairwell down to apartment 720.”

During the briefing, officials with the Department of Permitting Services and the Department of Housing and Community Affairs told council members that while the Arrive apartments didn’t have sprinklers, recent inspections showed that other “passive” fire prevention features in the building were operational.

Tamala Robinson, with DHCA, said that smoke detectors in building had been tested Dec. 20 and were functioning.

Goldstein said that the department continually works on delivering messages on fire safety, and outlined some areas for future public education campaigns.

Council member Marilyn Balcombe, who mentioned growing up with the “Stop, drop and roll” fire safety message, asked about current efforts.

Goldstein said the “Close before you doze” message is something that’s been emphasized in the past five years — part of an effort to have residents close doors to prevent the spread of fires.

Future fire prevention education efforts are planned for a variety of settings to reach the most people possible, including at high-rise apartment buildings, community centers, multi-cultural centers and more.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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