Three children died, and four of their relatives barely escaped yesterday when a swift, fierce fire that started in the kitchen destroyed their Northeast Baltimore row house in the hour just before dawn.
Had it not been for a city work crew repairing a water main under the street outside, all those living at the house in the 4800 block of Truesdale Avenue in the Parkside community might have lost their lives.
"Something told me to turn around and look at the house . . . Jesus God, it was just an orange glow," said Boyd "Sonny" Mugrage Jr., the water crew foreman who helped catch a young boy and a woman jumping from a second-floor window and pulled another woman from the kitchen.
"The fire was so hot it actually looked like the windows were breathing before they blew, and flames just started kicking out and going up the walls."
Killed in the blaze at 5:40 a.m. were Damon Fairfax, 10; his 5-year-old brother, Jerry Fairfax; and their sister, Cieria Brown, 2.
After the one-alarm fire was extinguished, Damon and Cieria were found in a rear second-floor bedroom, Jerry on the floor of a nearby hallway. Damon was declared dead at the scene from burns. Cieria and Jerry died of smoke inhalation a short time later at Francis Scott Key Medical Center.
The cause of the fire had not been determined last night, although investigators doubted that foul play was involved. No smoke detectors were in the rented house.
The mother of the dead children, Denise Eggleston, had left for her job as a mail sorter for the Postal Service 10 minutes before the fire.
"I can't see how the house burned that fast. It's unbelievable," said Joseph Eggleston, Denise's father. He had stopped by to see his grandchildren on his way home from working a night job to find the house ablaze.
"All those children lost, and the city talks about cutting the fire department," he said a few hours later.
The water crew had just finished fixing the main -- and restoring water to nearby fire hydrants -- when Mr. Mugrage noticed the fire, told his dump truck driver to blow the vehicle's loud air horn and ran up to the house with other workers, screaming for those inside to get out.
"Finally, they woke up, and the next thing I know, this guy is jumping out the second-floor window," said Mr. Mugrage, who watched John Reddick, 38, fall to the cold ground in his underwear.
"We got him out the way and kept hollering to his wife: 'Throw the boy out. Drop him. We're right under the window,' and we managed to catch [the boy]," 5-year-old Jamar Reddick.
The woman, Donna Reddick, yelled down that there was too much smoke for her to see where to jump.
"We just told her to get the hell out of the house, that we'd break her fall," said Mr. Mugrage, and the water crew managed to catch her.
The Reddicks were evaluated at Francis Scott Key Medical Center. They were unhurt by fire and smoke, but Mr. Reddick, who is related by marriage to Ms. Eggleston, was slightly injured when he jumped.
After the Reddicks had jumped, the water crew asked them if anyone else was still inside the burning house. The answer was yes, that three children and their grandmother, Alice Hampton, 56, were trapped.
Mr. Mugrage said that he and two other workers, Robert Hines and Jerome Lester, went to the kitchen, kicked the door open and fought heat and smoke to find Ms. Hampton lying on the kitchen floor.
"She was lying down unconscious on the floor. They tried to pull her out, but she was dead weight," said Mr. Mugrage. "They were able to drag her to the door, and I got a hold under her armpits and, as I jerked her out the doorway, the flames just followed us right out."
Next door, Jacqueline Neverson -- who said Ms. Eggleston had lived there for about 20 years -- was hurrying her family out to the street.
"I was in the bed asleep, and I heard the water crew banging on the front door telling us to get out, that the house next door was on fire," Ms. Neverson said.
"The flames looked like somebody's arms reaching out of the windows. It didn't look like nobody was going to come out of that house. It scared me how fast it expanded, and when it was over, I got down on my knees and thanked the Lord for my life."
Getting the people out, Mr. Mugrage said, took about three minutes or so, and then the fire department, summoned by the water crew's dispatcher, arrived from the station house at Mannasota Avenue and Brehms Lane, about a mile away.
Investigators were waiting to talk to Ms. Hampton, hoping she might know how the fire began since she was in the room where it started.
Ms. Neverson's 14-year-old son, Frank, who said he often played sports and hung out with Damon, was sad that his buddy was gone, though he kept his emotion under control. "I'm good at keeping my crying inside," Frank said.
The deaths of Cieria, Jerry and Damon brought to 34 the number of fire fatalities in Baltimore this year.
"It hurts," Mr. Hines of the water crew said tearfully. "I have small kids myself."
Last year, 34 people died in Baltimore fires, the lowest number since 1938.
"I'm just glad we were there," Mr. Mugrage said. "If we weren't, they'd all be dead."