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Four Killed, 23 Injured in Retirement Home Fire

December 15, 1989 GMT

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) _ A fire at a retirement home killed four people and injured 23 others Thursday, but residents, rescue workers and TV cameramen ushered others to safety in the early morning cold, officials said.

The pre-dawn fire was the fifth blaze at a nursing home or retirement home in Virginia since June 30 and the third fatal fire at the Shenandoah Homes Retirement Community in the past 13 years.

Residents, many wearing only pajamas, streamed out of exits into the 19- degree cold, some aided by wheelchairs and walkers and others assisted by fellow residents, rescue personnel and even TV cameramen who pitched in to help.

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″The smoke was horrible,″ Louise Dudney, 79, said through tears as she sat in her pink robe on a bench at a skating rink used as an evacuation center. ″I thought I couldn’t make it but told myself, ‘I’m going to make it.’ I ran out and started knocking on doors.″

Marjorie Branson, 78, wrapped in a blanket, said, ″I left my walker, got my cane and everybody helped each other get out.″

Resident fire captains assigned to each floor coordinated the evacuations, which had been rehearsed in recent fire drills, and reported room numbers to sheriff’s deputies and firefighters when no one answered the knocks, chaplain R.C. Wilson said.

″It was just a marvel how these elderly people reacted under pressure,″ said Ottis Burgher, administrator for the Shenandoah Homes Retirement Community, which had 190 occupants.

Two television news crews dropped their cameras and microphones to help rescue residents of the six-story building, Roanoke County Fire Chief Tommy Fuqua said.

″I said to myself maybe I ought to get some pictures later and help some of these people,″ said Mark Roberts, a reporter and camera operator from WSLS-TV.

The fire was reported by an automatic alarm to the county fire and rescue department at 2:14 a.m. and was extinguished about 5 a.m., officials said.

The dead found in four rooms on the third floor were Rada Powell, 77; Edna S. Aliff, 77; Linard H. Mann, 86, and Marcie L. Keith, 80, said Sgt. Roger Robinson, spokesman for the sheriff’s department.

Twenty-three people were taken to three hospitals, with most of them suffering from smoke inhalation, chest pains or injuries related to falling, authorities said. The injured included three firefighters and a police officer. Of the seven people admitted to the hospitals, all residents of the home, one was listed in serious condition and the others were in stable condition.

A preliminary report on the cause of the fire will probably be released Friday, said Capt. Mark Light of the Roanoke County fire and rescue department.

The fire caused major damage only to the third-floor room in which the blaze began, Fire Marshal Ken Sharp said. There was smoke and water damage throughout the building, he said.

The red brick building has no sprinkler system but was equipped with smoke detectors and fire barriers, Fuqua said. ″They have all the equipment they are required to have. The alarm system worked; the smoke detectors worked.″

In 1976, a fire killed four residents of the Shenandoah home. Three months earlier, a blaze started by a dropped cigarette killed a woman.

Only one floor of the Shenandoah home is licensed by the state as a home for adults, a lower level of care than a nursing home, according to Richard Martin of the Virginia Department of Social Services and Welfare. The rest of the building was not regulated by the state, he said.

Thursday’s blaze came two months after a fire at a nursing home in Norfolk killed 12 residents. That home had no sprinklers, prompting demands that the General Assembly make such systems mandatory at all nursing homes.

On Dec. 6, a fire at Windham Nursing Home in Albemarle County, a six-story building equipped with sprinklers, caused extensive smoke and water damage but no injuries, officials said.

On Oct. 25, a fire at Riverdale Retirement Residence in Charlottesville caused the evacuation of several dozen residents in the one-story building.

On June 30, a fire at Kings Manor Adultcare in Chesapeake caused and evacaution and one minor injury.