PASADENA, Md. (AP) — The first thing 11-year-old Lawrence Wright smelled when he woke up around midnight on Jan. 23, 1961, was burning plastic.
The first thing he saw when he ventured downstairs was smoke billowing toward the ceiling of his home off Old Mill Road and Catherine Avenue in Pasadena.
Panicked, he ran back upstairs to alert his Uncle Bernard and seven younger siblings, all of whom were sleeping.
“Everyone was walking back and forth in a daze,” recalled Wright, now 61. “At the time, I thought the best thing to do was to go out the window.”
So he jumped about 15 feet to the ground, suffering cuts to his hands and burns to his ears, and ran next door to the neighbor’s house to call the fire department.
He survived, and so did one of his sisters, who lived with an aunt and great-grandmother about five minutes away from the rest of the family.
But they were the only siblings who made it out alive.
Killed in the fire were Regina Wright, 10; Allen Green, 6; Jeweline Green, 5; Yvette Green, 4; Winifred Green, 3; Marilyn Green, 2 and Darnell Green, 9 months. The children’s 32-year-old uncle also perished in the blaze.
On the 50th anniversary of the fire – one of the county’s deadliest – Wright and his only surviving sibling, 58-year-old Rosalind Moore of Cedar Hill, still struggle with whys and hows.
They wonder why they lived, and the others didn’t.
And they wonder how their mother kept going after burying sevenof her nine children.
“For a long time, I questioned everything,” said Wright, who still lives in Pasadena. “I didn’t know why God had spared me.”
Harry Klasmeier, the first county fire marshal, said the Pasadena blaze came at the start of what would prove to be adifficult few months for county firefighters and families.
“We had 17 people die in fires within a couple of months,” the Edgewater resident said. “It was a very bad winter.”
The other fatalities came on April 24, 1961, when a family of nine died in a house fire in North Beach Park at the far southern end of the county.
All these years later, Moore said the details of that night in Pasadena are blurry. Moore doesn’t remember the exact date of the fire, but she knew it happened on a cold January night 50 years ago.
“Of course, I think about it a lot,” Moore said. “I think about my family, my sisters and brothers, what my mother was going through.
“I think about my baby brother,” she added. “He would be 50 years old. You always think about them when the holidays come.”
A cold winter
On the night of the fire, Delores and Ernest Green already were dealing with a tragedy. They were off making funeral arrangements for his mother.
The winter of 1960-61 was unusually cold. The day before the fire in Pasadena, the temperature in Baltimore hit 19 degrees, a record for that day.
After the blaze, firefighters determined a faulty oil furnace was to blame.
But Wright suspects the windows of the house also likely prevented his brother, sisters and uncle from escaping quickly. The home had old-fashioned, wind-up windows that opened with keys.
“And it was winter, so who knows where the keys were,” Wright said. “The only thing I could think about was going out one of those windows. I went in and found a hammer and broke the window out.”
He remembers trying to grab a few of his siblings, but they were disoriented and tried to fight back.
Klasmeier, the fire marshal, said it’s tough to recall specifics of the Pasadena fire after so many years, though there are a few images that remain burned into his mind.
“The house was completely engulfed in fire,” he said. “It was quite a tragedy.”
Once firefighters arrived, Wright was taken to what was then Anne Arundel General Hospital in Annapolis to be treated for smoke inhalation and other injuries. The fire took place a few years before Glen Burnie got its own hospital.
Wright was hospitalized for several days. It wasn’t until he was released that he learned his uncle and all but one of his siblings had perished. The funeral happened while he was in the hospital.
Moore was there, but she remembers little.
“I was so young – all of the caskets were at the church at once,” she said. “None of them were open.”
After the fire, the family moved to Glen Burnie, and Moore and Wright said their mother’s marriage to their stepfather survived only a few more years. Did the family tragedy drive them apart?
They’ll never know.
“They struggled in their own ways,” Wright said. “As soon as we got older, they split.”
But the bond between the family’s surviving members remained tight. Wright and Moore were close with their mother until her death in 2002. The siblings and their families also frequently travel together.
“Especially in later years,” Wright said.
“We go anywhere and everywhere,” his sister added.
All these years later, one thing neither sibling has ever forgotten is where that old house stood.
“If you go down Route 100, you can see it,” Moore said.
For years, she avoided driving that way to services at Mount Zion United Methodist Church, not wanting to dredge up bad memories. Her brother said he has gone by the old property a few times.
“Basically, I can’t help but turn my head,” he said.
Second fatal fire
Joseph B. Ross Jr., a retired county firefighter and local historian, said the 1961 fires are the deadliest in county history.
Ross, a program specialist with the U.S. Fire Administration and author of the book “Arundel Burning,” is researching the blazes.
Changes made since then might have given the fires a different outcome, Ross said. For instance, radio communication among first responders wasn’t as sophisticated 50 years ago. Residents whose houses were burning called the nearest fire station, and whoever answered the phone there would then call other stations, Ross said.
“You just had to hope that somebody would answer the phone,” Ross said.
Homes also didn’t have smoke detectors back then, he said. They weren’t required for new houses in the county until the mid-1970s.
The following decade, county officials passed a law requiring smoke detectors in existing homes.
“That could have made a big difference,” Ross said.
Klasmeier also noted that in those days, home heating systems didn’t meet the same standards required today. Homeowners sometimes installed the heaters themselves, and the regulations were less stringent.
“These kinds of fires that’s a rarity today,” he said.
The Capital of Annapolis
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)