- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

A pre-dawn fire in a Burtonsville apartment yesterday killed three young girls and critically injured their mother, authorities said.

The blaze broke out about 4:45 a.m. inside a ground-floor unit at the Windsor Court Apartments in the 13800 block of Castle Boulevard. Investigators determined that plastic containers placed near a stove ignited the fire, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesman Pete Piringer said.

Elsie Nuka Foncham, 30, an immigrant from Cameroon, was transported to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore in critical condition. Her three daughters — Chanelle, 4; Foncham, 2; and 4-month-old Makenzie Nuka — were transported to area hospitals where they were pronounced dead.

Mr. Piringer said it appeared that Mrs. Fonchum got up during the night to prepare bottles of milk for her baby and left the electrically heated plastic sterilizer next to a burner on the stove.

“She may have gone back to bed,” Mr. Piringer said. He said she was likely awakened by the smoke, which was “very acrid.”

It appeared that Mrs. Foncham pulled the electrical cord on the sterilizer loose and threw it and other flammable materials into the bathtub before being overcome by the smoke, he said.

U.S. immigration officials said the children’s father, Ignatius Foncham, is in custody awaiting deportation back to Cameroon.

The officials said they were “working with Foncham to fulfill his needs” after the deaths of his children but would not provide further details. The three children were U.S. citizens, but Mrs. Foncham’s status was not clear.

Hossam Yassin, 36, who lived across the hall from the Foncham apartment, said that neighbors awakened by the smoke and fire alarms went to the apartment door and knocked.

“They knocked on the door. Nobody answered. They called the fire department,” said Mr. Yassin, a limousine driver whose parents and wife live with him in the apartment he has occupied for seven years. “The firemen were here in two or three minutes.”

Mr. Yassin watched as firefighters carried “three kids out” and then the mother. Medics tried to revive Mrs. Foncham and her daughters before transporting them to hospitals.

Fourteen apartments were vacated while about 65 firefighters from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties battled the blaze. Fire officials estimated damages amounted to $60,000 and said two or three apartments would have to be closed for repairs.

Mr. Piringer said several alarms didn’t work when firefighters checked smoke alarms after extinguishing the early-morning fire.

Firefighters last night toured several Windsor Court Apartments buildings, going door-to-door to be certain that smoke alarms were working and to advise residents about precautions to be taken against fires.

n This article is based in part on wire service reports.