Witnesses described yesterday's dramatic scene on Abbotston Street in Northeast Baltimore as one of "pure panic": neighbors and relatives working feverishly to save the lives of 21 people as a pre-dawn fire raced through both halves of a three-story duplex.
One man climbed a tree to the roof of a second-floor porch, broke through a window with his hand and saved two children.
A grandfather withstood flames and choking smoke long enough to toss two of his grandchildren out a second-floor window to a crowd of people standing below. He then jumped, breaking his wrist in the fall.
But it wasn't until firefighters began to arrive at the house in the 1500 block of Abbotston Street that people realized their effort had fallen short.
Two children -- 3-year-old David Parson Jr., who was known as D.J., and Monte Robins, a 7-year-old who was called Marty -- apparently had not awakened when the house's smoke detector sounded about 6:30 a.m. They were found dead together in a third-floor bed, victims of smoke inhalation, said Capt. Calvin Johnson, a Fire Department spokesman.
Twelve others in the house -- six adults and six children -- escaped or were rescued. The nine residents of the adjoining half of the duplex escaped safely. It took 70 firefighters with 28 pieces of equipment nearly an hour to bring the two-alarm blaze under control, officials said.
Investigators believe the fire was caused by an electrical problem and started near a refrigerator in the first-floor kitchen.
One resident, Naomi Vinson, had been already awake in a second-floor front bedroom when she smelled smoke and asked one of the children to check the first floor, according to Captain Johnson. The child's report of a fire in the kitchen sent people --ing through the house to wake the others and warn them to get out.
Someone went next door to warn Mrs. Vinson's daughter, Adlea Mosby, of the fire, which at this time was beginning to penetrate the second and third floors of Mrs. Mosby's house, the other half of the duplex.
Captain Johnson said that once windows were opened on the second floor, the resulting "chimney effect" sucked the flames to the upper floor.
James Royster, 73, who lives in the house with Mrs. Mosby, said that when he opened the front door, he saw a scene of "pure panic."
"Smoke and fire were so thick you couldn't see," Mr. Royster said. "You couldn't tell what was happening. Everything was in turmoil. People were screaming and crying."
According to witnesses, Naomi Vinson and her husband, John, a 62-year-old retired maintenance worker, went in and out of the house repeatedly in an effort to find and count all the children amid the confusion.
It was on his last trip that Mr. Vinson tossed two youngsters out the window to rescuers below but then became trapped. He was forced to jump, and broke his wrist.
Mr. Vinson was later admitted to Union Memorial Hospital, along with Firefighter Harry C. Wagner, 43, of Engine 31, who injured his back.
Another who played a key role in the rescue efforts was George Carolina, who lives across the street. Witnesses said Mr. Carolina climbed a tree in the yard beside the house and stepped onto the porch roof to reach two other children.
Mr. Carolina then handed the youngsters down to other people on the ground.
Later yesterday, friends and relatives tried to assist the displaced families with food, clothing and shelter. They remembered the two youngsters who died as "good, kind" children.
Their deaths bring to seven the number of people killed in fires in Baltimore this year, two more than at this time last year, Captain Johnson said.