Fire destroys family's hopes for security 2nd city fire in Union Square kills tenant in rooming house

December 22, 1991|By Michael J. Clark and Jay Apperson

A rooming house fire in Baltimore's historic Union Square neighborhood killed one man last night and left three others critically injured -- the second fatal blaze in the city in less than 24 hours.

The earlier fire just before midnight Friday burned out the home of an Eritrean refugee couple, killing their two young American-born children.

The father was critically injured leaping through a window after an unsuccessful attempt to save his children.

The later blaze, reported at 7:01 p.m., broke out in a second-floor rear bedroom of the three-story brick row house in the 1400 block of Hollins Street, a block east of the H. L. Mencken House museum.

A man who lived in the room -- described by a fellow boarder as disabled from arthritis -- was found dead by firefighters. Authorities withheld the man's name pending notification of relatives.

Two adult men were in critical condition at the University of Maryland Medical Center, under treatment for severe smoke inhalation. Another man, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation, was in critical condition at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center burn unit, officials said.

One of the injured men was rescued by firefighters from a third-floor room. "They could see his hand at the window. They knew he was there," said fire Battalion Chief Joseph Dillon.

The firefighter who entered the room to bring out the injured man, who was treated for smoke inhalation at Mercy Hospital.

Fire officials said a smoke detector in the building was activated by the blaze.

Clinton Dean, 70, who has run the rooming house with his wife since 1955, said every room had a smoke detector. The blaze "just gives you that numb feeling," he said.

The earlier fire in Southwest Baltimore struck the family of Eritreans Selam Neguse and her husband, Kibrom Fisesshai, shattering the security they had found after fleeing civil war in their homeland and enduring life in a Sudanese refugee camp.

Smoke and flames took away their two American-born children, the house they had hoped to own some day -- everything but the clothing on their backs.

About 30 friends and relatives gathered in mourning yesterday in a Takoma Park apartment, trying to comfort the 29-year-old Ms. Neguse. But they could not stop the tears of her grief for the 2-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son who died after the fire that burned out their Cape Cod-style home in the 5000 block of Parkton Street.

Her husband, Mr. Fisesshai, 36, was listed in critical condition yesterday following several hours of surgery at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. He suffered severe cuts in leaping through a second-floor rear window after heavy smoke blocked his attempt to save the children asleep in separate bedrooms.

A friend of the family, Daniel Nabu, said the fire left them "virtually homeless."

"They have nothing -- no clothes except for what is on their backs."

The mother, he said, had been crying steadily since early yesterday, when she had been shrieking outside the burning house and pleading for someone to rescue her daughter, Hirmon Kibrom, and her son, Philamon Kibrom, a first-grader at Beechfield Elementary School.

Firefighters found them in the smoke-filled second-floor

bedrooms, attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the front yard and then rushed them to area hospitals. But the children were pronounced dead a short time later.

Close friends said the couple fled Eritrea, a province of Ethiopia, 11 years ago, and spent a "very hard life" for four years in a refugee camp in Sudan.

The wife had been a student in Eritrea and her husband a car-body repairman. They initially had settled in northern Virginia, while the husband operated a car-body repair garage in Washington. The family moved to Southwest Baltimore three years ago.

Shirley Anne Toelle, who lived next door on Parkton Street, described them as "a very loving, caring family."

When the Eritrean civil war ended six months ago, the couple had a memorable party in their back yard, with many participants dressed in ethnic clothing.

In the aftermath of the fire, Ms. Toelle said yesterday, neighbors "are all crying."

"We are absolutely devastated," she said. "It was horrible to witness the screams of the mother and the father lying in a pool of blood, barely able to lift his arm to reach out to his son, who was limp and lifeless after the rescue."

For Rick Lago, a six-year veteran with the Baltimore fire department, showing up at a house engulfed in flames at 11:45 p.m. Friday was "horrifying."

Firefighter Lago, who was recovering from second-degree facial burns at St. Agnes Hospital yesterday, had clambered up a ladder and entered the smoke-filled bedroom of the 2-year-old girl, and found her in a crib.

"I was crawling in the heavy smoke, and my ears and neck were burning," the 30-year-old firefighter said. "I couldn't see anything, and I just felt around until I felt a latch of the crib." Then he stood and grabbed the child.

"The first thing that came in my mind was my own son, Louis, who is 10 months old. I ran to the window as fast as I could and jumped onto the sloped roof and handed the baby to another firefighter coming up the ladder," he said.

Once on the ground, he ran over to the little boy, who had been rescued by another firefighter, and performed CPR on him there and in the ambulance on the way to St. Agnes Hospital.

"Basically, I knew he had expired, but I just did not want to give up, even though I knew I was probably fighting a losing battle. It ran through my mind that it was the Christmas season and what would I do without my little boy."

The blaze, which caused about $70,000 in damage, started accidentally when sparks from a fireplace ignited the living room rug, said Capt. John R. Griffith, a fire department investigator.

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