It was around 2 a.m. when a loud noise woke Laura Rittenberg. She opened her eyes and saw her bedroom illuminated by the fire trucks parked outside. A fire had broken out at her Leisure World apartment building. In fact, she said, it was in the unit right next to hers.
The incident, on Nov. 28, left one woman dead and at least 50 people displaced, including Rittenberg. And to add insult to injury, the blaze occurred the day before her 77th birthday.
“So I went 76 years, 364 days without a fire in my life,” Rittenberg said. “If I had any idea that there was a real chance of this happening, I would have bought more insurance.”
Rittenberg, who is Jewish, is a retired legal secretary and has lived at Leisure World since 2016. The senior living community in Silver Spring is home to 8,000 residents 55 years or older. The fire reportedly broke out on the third floor of one of Leisure World’s three-story residential buildings, according to Bethesda Magazine.
Rittenberg said she walked out of her apartment to see what all the commotion was about. She noticed that the hallway was a bit smoky, but at that moment she wasn’t concerned. Then she saw the flames next door.
Wearing only her sleep shirt and socks, she rushed back into her unit and threw on some pants. She was about to grab her phone and handbag when a firefighter barged in, catching her off guard.
As he took her by the arm, she grabbed a jacket, and was escorted outside. In the parking lot, Rittenberg got a good glimpse of the blaze.
“I could see the flames on the roof. And for some reason, I kept staying calm. I have no idea why,” Rittenberg said.
More than 100 Montgomery County firefighters responded to the three-alarm fire. The cause of the blaze has not been released. Some 30 units were damaged and one woman was found dead in the rubble. She was identified as 89-year-old Louise Burrows, but the exact cause of death has not been released.
Rittenberg doesn’t believe the flames got far into her unit, but the ceiling did cave in. So she’s worried about water damage from rain. She has not been allowed back inside her home, but firefighters have retrieved her phone, glasses, watch, handbag and car fob.
“It’s frightening,” said Lyle Wolinsky, president of Jewish Residents of Leisure World, of which Rittenberg is a member. “It looks like a bomb hit the building and tore the roof off.”
Wolinsky said she was the only group member affected by the fire.
“She was very lucky and unlucky at the same time,” he said. “She is lucky to be alive because the fire was next to her. She is unlucky to have had to leave her apartment without shoes and has to start all over from scratch.”
Rittenberg and the other displaced residents have been put up in a hotel paid for by the American Red Cross. Despite the disaster, Rittenberg said she’s trying to remain positive. She appreciates the help and emotional support of her friends and fellow members of Jewish Residents of Leisure World.
Wolinsky said members are gathering clothing, pots, pans and towels to help replace anything she lost.
“Let me tell you, you are talking to one lucky lady here,” Rittenberg said. “I have a stellar support system I never knew. It was wonderful. And so many people in the community have reached out. It’s really been lovely.”
Rittenberg is dealing with the insurance company and hopes to have a new permanent place to live soon.
“I feel stunningly fortunate,” Rittenberg said. “When I think about where I’m going to live for the next year — it could be a year, maybe even two, before I get back in my unit. I have insurance. I don’t know how much it’s going to pay for. So all of that is concerning.
“But you know, the truth is that, by and large, things are always working out for me. And I’m crying less today, so that’s nice.”