Thursday, January 26, 2006

Student Dies in College Park Blaze
U-Md. Senior, 22, Lived in Off-Campus Apartment Cited for Fire Concerns
By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006; B01

A 22-year-old University of Maryland student who was a hip-hop disc jockey on a campus radio station was killed yesterday when fire roared through his College Park basement apartment, which had recently been cited by the city for having windows too small to permit easy escape.

It was the second fatal fire in off-campus housing in nine months.

Firefighters found David Ellis of West Windsor, N.J., unconscious in his bedroom, trapped by flames that were shooting between him and the apartment door, said Prince George's County fire spokesman Mark Brady. He was pronounced dead a short time later at a hospital.

The cause of the blaze, in the 7100 block of Rossburg Drive, was under investigation, fire officials said.

The apartment building's owners, who did not respond yesterday to requests for interviews, were cited by the city for not complying with new regulations to enlarge the unit's windows, Brady said. The intent of the regulations is to provide a second exit in the event of a fire, he said.

"We tell people: 'You need two ways out.' These windows were not up to code," Brady said.

The owner, listed in property records as Knox Box Realty of Rockville, had appealed the citation and asked for an extension to complete the renovations, Brady said.

Students on campus were rattled by the death, which came a day before classes were to resume. Many remembered back to April, when senior Michael A. Scrocca died in a fire that had been set, a case that remains under investigation by Prince George's police.

Some aspects of the cases are similar: Both victims were 22-year-olds from New Jersey; both were seniors and about to graduate; and both died in fires that ripped through off-campus housing in the early hours.

The April fire was ruled an arson; officials said they will not know what ignited yesterday's fire, or the cause of Ellis's death, until today at the earliest. Brady said the blaze started in the kitchen area of the apartment.

A friend of Ellis's, who asked not to be named because the case is open, said Ellis had complained over the weekend about his stove overheating, causing smoke to fill his apartment and setting off the smoke detector.

Ellis lived with Richard Lang, 21, in the apartment, which is in a two-story brick building two blocks south of campus. There was one way to enter and exit their unit: through a cellar door in the back of the building.

The apartment building is one of several square, squat brick buildings known as a "Knox boxes" because of their proximity to Knox Road. The building dates to 1953, property records show.

Christina Santiago, a close friend of Ellis's, said the apartment buildings have a reputation for being run-down. "The Knox boxes are dangerous," she said. "It was just a matter of time."

Lang suffered minor smoke inhalation and was treated at a hospital and released. He arrived home at 2:30 a.m., shortly after the fire ignited, and tried to enter the back door before firefighters arrived.

Late yesterday morning, Lang walked around the parking lot in front of the building. A soot-stained tear streaked his face. He wore hospital scrubs under a green fleece jacket.

"As far as I knew him, he was pretty laid-back and funny," Lang said of Ellis, his roommate for three semesters.

Seven other students in the six-unit building were home during the fire and escaped unharmed.

University spokesman Millree Williams said the school is coordinating a workshop on fire safety for students living off campus. In the meantime, the off-campus housing office is updating its Web site to remind students what to look for when renting, including making sure that an apartment has two exits, and adding information on fire safety.

"We're always concerned whenever we have a tragedy on campus," Williams said. "We certainly are looking at ways to ensure that our students have a safe and secure environment at all times."

He said the university isn't working directly with the apartment building where the fire occurred, but it has coordinated with College Park officials to try to ensure safety for the 13,000 or so students who live off campus.

College Park Mayor Stephen A. Brayman said the city will review its regulations to see whether they need to be updated. "We will be taking this unfortunate incident to see if there are more lessons we can learn to make the housing within College Park even safer," he said.

After the April fire that killed Scrocca, city officials said they were discussing the possibility of mandating that all housing in the city be retrofitted with sprinklers.

Santiago came by Ellis's apartment yesterday with tears in her eyes. She said she had been hanging out with him Saturday night.

She spoke about his love of watching televised wrestling and spinning underground hip-hop music. He was known around town for his hip-hop radio show from 9 p.m. to midnight Fridays on campus station WMUC-FM (88.1), where he entertained under the name D. Ellis.

"He was a popular face on campus," she said. "He had a lot of potential to go far." She said he was majoring in American studies.

Another close friend, Rahul Reddy, 21, graduated with Ellis in 2002 from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South. Speaking from his home in Irvine, Calif., Reddy said he and Ellis bonded over hip-hop music.

"He was so intelligent with music," Reddy said. "I didn't know anybody who knew as much music as Dave. His personality was unparalleled. He's such a loving and caring guy. All our friends gravitate around Dave."

Source:Washington Post
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