- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

Newlyweds Rachelle Leo-Smith and Raymaldo Smith were back from their honeymoon only two days when they lost all of their belongings in a fire at Peppertree Farm apartments in Aspen Hill, Md.

They were two out of roughly 70 people left homeless Tuesday in the 3200 block of Weeping Willow Court after a three-alarm fire destroyed five apartments and left 27 apartments uninhabitable overnight.

Mrs. Leo-Smith, 22, was at work when a neighbor called to tell her the complex was on fire.

"I parked my car and ran to the apartment. As soon as I ran around the corner I was thinking, 'That's my apartment,' and then the whole thing burst into flames," she said.

Firefighters first answered the call about 2:40 p.m., after residents noticed smoke and flames coming from the roof of the four story garden-style apartments. Within 15 minutes, about 100 firefighters from across Montgomery County were called to the scene. It took one hour to get the blaze under control, fire officials said.

"Investigators are confident that it was not an intentional fire," said Capt. Jim Resnick, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services. "It's possibly electrical in nature."

"Fire investigators are considering the case to be closed," Capt. Resnick said.

Damage on the roof of Building 3208, where the fire began, was so extensive that it will be difficult to determine the exact cause, he said.

Shana Callum, 11, was coming back from swimming when she saw flames and smoke coming from the top of the apartments.

"Glass started breaking and in five minutes the whole apartment was on fire," she said.

Shana said she went inside the building to warn people about the fire, but left soon after. According to fire officials, maintenance workers pulled fire alarms in the building.

Everyone was safely evacuated by the time firefighters arrived.

"Everybody was fine. They were shocked and scared, but they were fine," Shana said.

Mrs. Leo-Smith and Mr. Smith, 26, had lived in their apartment for only six months and were beginning to get their lives in order. They married July 8 and returned from a honeymoon in St. Lucia on Saturday night. They had plans to buy a house sometime next year.

Now, because they do not have renter's insurance, they have lost everything. All of their wedding gifts, including cash, were destroyed, as were photographs of their wedding.

"All I could do was cry, drop to the ground and cry," Mrs. Leo-Smith said.

The Smiths stayed with relatives in Wheaton, Md., overnight and purchased new clothes thanks to vouchers from the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross also set up a reception center at the scene, where they served meals to those affected. Most victims found shelter with family or friends, and those who were left were given hotel vouchers for the night, said Ginny Hogan, director of emergency services for the Red Cross.

"We met [Tuesday] night with families who were really [affected] by the fire," she said. "We will now be visiting with families on an individual basis to see what their needs are."

The electrical inspector, building inspector and fire-code enforcement officer spent yesterday examining the building. Perhaps 16 apartments might be ready to open today, Capt. Resnick said.

Damage was estimated at $400,000.

"Unfortunately people who live in apartments tend not to have rental insurance," Capt. Resnick said. "It's possible many of these people did not."

The Smiths hope to see the remains of their apartment soon, but will start looking for a new place to live.

"We had just bought furnishings," Mrs. Leo-Smith said. "I worked so hard for that and now I have to start over again."

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