They saw 5-year-old Carlzell Connor and 3-year-old Alexandrea Autry through the thick smoke Friday night, staring silently out the windows at the frantic crowd gathered outside their blazing East Baltimore home.
In the moments before firefighters arrived, a young teen-ager climbed on the roof, a man rushed through the front door and neighbors broke in a back window in an attempt to save the two, who were trapped by the Friday night fire that consumed their two-story home in the Claremont housing project near Archbishop Curley High School.
"I think about everybody in this entire complex was out here trying to get into that house," said Renee Tate, whose daughter babysat for the two children.
For a brief moment, neighbors almost reached Carlzell, breaking a first-floor window at which he had been standing. But the little boy, apparently frightened and confused, ran back inside.
The rescuers' efforts only fed oxygen to the flames. By the time firefighters found Carlzell, kneeling by his bed upstairs, and his little sister, who had passed out on the floor, the two were no longer breathing. The cause of death was smoke inhalation.
Two other children and the four youngsters' mother, 23-year-old Alicia Autry, escaped by jumping from a second floor window. Ms. Autry hurt her knee and back in the 12-foot drop, but 6 1/2 -year-old Alexis Autry and 1 1/2 -year-old Arlicia Autry escaped unhurt.
A smoke alarm that might have given warning in time to save everyone was not working, Ms. Autry said yesterday. She said she had reported the faulty alarm back in September. A check of housing authority records revealed no work orders involving a smoke alarm since September, said Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which runs Claremont.
Ms. Autry was awakened Friday night by 3-year-old Alexandrea -- called Andy -- coughing and asking for water. The upstairs hallway was hazy with smoke, Ms. Autry said. She called 911, dialed the wrong number by mistake, and called again.
By then the smoke was filling the house, she recalls. Ms. Autry said she grabbed Alexis and dropped her out of the second-story window before jumping herself with her toddler, Arlicia, in her arms.
Only when she hit the ground, Alicia Autry recalls, did she realize she had no way of going back in for the other two children.
"She grabbed me," recalls Ms. Tate, who is Ms. Autry's neighbor and friend. "She said 'Please get somebody to get my babies. Please.' I kept holding on to her because she kept trying to go in. I don't know where I got the strength to hold her."
The blaze was under control by 10:59 p.m., 13 minutes after it wasreported, fire officials said. Neighbors and the mother watched as the bodies were carried out, moments after firefighters arrived at the house in the 4400 block of Clare Way. Attempts to revive Carlzell and Andy were unsuccessful.
"Everybody was crying around here," said Alisa Corday, who was visiting her mother two doors down from the Autrys when the fire broke out. "Even the children. Even the grown men. They brought out those bodies and they were smoking. Even the policewoman was crying when she had to tell her 'Your babies are dead.' "
Fire investigators say the fire started in a stuffed chair in the downstairs living room. One of the children was probably playing with matches, said Capt. Robert Hatoff, a fire department investigator.
The damage to the brick house was estimated at $15,000, though two adjoining houses were untouched. The fire was so intense it turned doors into charcoal and melted the aluminum door frames, Captain Hatoff said.
Yesterday, housing authority workers hauled away blackened mattresses, beds and chairs while friends, some weeping, watched. At a candlelight prayer vigil scheduled
for last night, Claremont tenants association president Anna Warren hoped to begin a collection to help Ms. Autry replace her lost belongings.
The Red Cross will provide her with some clothes and furniture, an agency worker said. The Housing Authority will have a vacant Claremont unit ready for Ms. Autry by tomorrow, Mr. Toohey said.
Meanwhile, at her grandmother's house in North Mount Street in West Baltimore, Ms. Autry was trying yesterday to track down photos of her dead children and make arrangements for the funeral that will be held after Christmas, she said.
Ms. Autry wept each time she recalled how she had Andy by the hand for a few moments Friday night, then lost her in the smoke.
Earlier yesterday, her grandmother, Alverta Anderson, had taken down the Christmas lights and packed away the Christmas tree. Only a wreath remained of the Christmas ornaments.
"I know you're supposed to give thanks these days to the Lord, but I feel like something is missing," she said.