Cumberland Times-News

Local News

January 23, 2012

City fire chief says fatal blaze likely accidental

State and local fire marshals still investigating the exact cause

CUMBERLAND — The cause of Friday’s fire that killed two young sisters on East Harrison Street has not been disclosed but the cause is believed to be accidental, according to Cumberland Fire Chief Donnie Dunn.

Seven-year-old Paige M. Ford and 4-year-old Jymera Ford lost their lives to the 6:05 a.m. blaze that destroyed their home at 309 Harrison St. and an adjacent dwelling among five row houses that shared a common attic.

Six of the occupants of the residence at 309 escaped the fire, including the girls' mother, Tandra Ford, who was treated for smoke inhalation as a result of the predawn fire that was the second fatal fire in the city in less than six weeks.

On Dec. 11, an accidental fire at 328 Estella St. claimed the lives of Delores Crawford, 66, and her 37-year-old daughter, Ruth Crawford, and Kellie Appold, 45. State and city fire investigators determined the blaze originated in a first-floor living room and was caused by combustibles placed too closely to a portable heater.

Friday’s fatal fire also originated in the first-floor living room. The cause remains under investigation by the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office and Cumberland Fire Marshal Lt. W. Shannon Adams.

The victims perished despite valiant efforts to rescue them as fire raged through the two-story structure and sent flames and smoke shooting into the darkened sky. A Cumberland Police officer who responded from a nearby location was first to arrive at the scene but was prevented by the blaze from entering the rear and front doors of the brick dwelling.

Cumberland Fire Department arrived seconds later and placed a ladder to the second-floor window where the two girls were seen after the fire broke out. An interior attack allowed firefighters to enter the residence briefly before the hazardous conditions forced them back out of the structure, located just off the Maryland Avenue exit of westbound Interstate 68 and a short distance from the Cumberland Post Office.

Six firefighters were injured and three remained on medical leave Monday as a result of injuries suffered during the fire operation that involved more than 100 firefighters from Allegany and Mineral counties.

Paige was rescued by city firefighter Scott Blankenship, equipment operator and driver of Truck 1, who reached in the window and pulled her out as she was in cardiac arrest. She died a short time later after being rushed to the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center. Jymera was found inside the residence when the fire was eventually brought under control.

Capt. William “Buzz” Davis, Truck 1 officer, entered the window after Blankenship pulled Paige out. Davis searched the room where the victims had been seen but was unable to locate Jymera before heavy fire forced him out of the building. “Captain Davis dove out head-first in a firefighting survival training maneuver in which he hooked his arm around a rung of the ladder but the rung broke,” said Dunn. “He then fell 10 feet onto another firefighter who broke his fall. Firefighter Blankenship suffered burns to his hands and fingers. He saw the children at the window and put on rescue gloves to do what he had to do. It was not part of the usual gloves worn during a fire operation,” said Dunn. The chief also said three ladders were damaged during the firefighting operation.

Firefighter Geena Kile suffered burns during the fire operation and was treated and released at the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center along with Davis and Blankenship. “All three are doing well and are expected to return to duty in the near future,” said Dunn.

Dunn said there was no indication of the presence of working smoke alarms when the fire broke out but “they could have made a difference.” There were also no working smoke detectors in the residence at 328 Estella St. at the time of the Dec. 11 fire.

“Working smoke alarms would definitely have made a difference, no question about it,” said Dunn, who said some of the eight occupants inside the residence at 309 were asleep when the fire broke out. The identities of all the occupants have not been disclosed.

As fire investigators worked to determine what caused the deadly fire, C3I continued to investigate the deaths of the Ford sisters. Autopsy results were being awaited by the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore.

The fire caused an estimated $200,000 in damages to the five rowhouses located at 301-303-305-307 and 309 East Harrison. The property is owned by Debbie Miller.

The incident also prompted the presence of a crisis counselor to assist firefighters who responded to the scene. The American Red Cross assisted the victims with emergency food, clothing and shelter.

Contact Jeffrey Alderton at jlalderton@times-news.com.

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