An overloaded extension cord and a malfunctioning kerosene heater were blamed for two separate blazes that killed four people in Baltimore yesterday, city fire officials reported.
Three people -- including a 14-year-old girl -- perished when an extension cord ignited a blaze that engulfed a three-story West Baltimore rowhouse about 10 a.m. About 3 a.m., an elderly woman was killed and her husband was severely burned when a kerosene heater sparked a blaze that destroyed their Southwest Baltimore home.
The West Baltimore victims failed to escape from the house even though it was equipped with a working smoke detector, fire officials said. As dense smoke filled the house at 3004 W. North Ave., the smoke detector activated and five other occupants climbed from a second-floor porch roof to an adjoining house, said Capt. Hector Torres, a fire department spokesman.
Fire officials were uncertain whether the survivors heard the smoke detector or were routed from the house by the smoke and flames.
Rachel M. Powell, 33, who lives next door to the house that caught fire, said she was fixing her hair when her 11-year-old son, Stephen Cupit, told her that he smelled smoke. The boy looked out the front window and yelled "Mom, there's a fire," she recalled.
After getting her two sons and a niece outside to safety, Ms. Powell said she re-entered the apartment house where she lives, and alerted the other residents to the fire next door.
As Ms. Powell awaited the arrival of the firefighters, she recalled an eerie calm as flames consumed the rowhouse next to her residence.
"It was so quiet out there. Flames were coming out of the windows on the first and second floors, but I didn't hear anything, no screaming . . . nothing," Ms. Powell said.
Some 48 firefighters with 12 pieces of equipment fought the single-alarm blaze for about an hour and a half before bringing it under control. One firefighter suffered a minor hand injury when a hose burst. He was treated and released at Mercy Medical Center.
Firefighters found two of the victims, tentatively identified as Betty Miller, 41, and Angie Foster, 14, lying in a second-floor hallway. The third victim, tentatively identified as Patricia Faison, 34, was found in a third-floor front bedroom, they said.
All three bodies were taken to the state medical examiner's office for autopsies.
The building was completely ruined. Damage was estimated at $70,000.
Two of Ms. Miller's sons tried to re-enter the burning house to rescue their mother, but they were turned back by smoke and flames. After the blaze was extinguished, they paced back and forth in front of the burned-out building with dejected expressions on their faces. Friends tried to console the brothers as firefighters tossed debris on the sidewalk and the Red Cross handed out food and clothing vouchers to survivors.
Harold M. Moore, Jr., 33, of the 2900 block of W. North Ave., said he had known the victims for about two years and described them all as "good people. She [Betty Miller] was on social services. But if you didn't have a place to stay she would always let you sleep on the couch."
Captain Torres said the fire was caused by an overloaded extension cord that ignited a rug on in the house's first-floor front room. He said the blaze smoldered undetected until it had "developed tremendous headway."
Fire officials were not immediately able to interview the survivors to determine whether they heard the smoke detector. And it was not immediately determined why the three victims failed to flee from the buildings, fire investigators added.
The fatal fire in Southwest Baltimore occurred just before 3 a.m. as the victims -- a husband and wife -- slept in their second-floor front bedroom at 484 Brunswick St., located between Frederick and Wilkens avenues, Captain Torres said.
Margaret R. Arndt, who lives next to the house that caught fire, said a man walking his dog knocked on her door and alerted her to the blaze.
"I looked out front and yelled 'oh, my God, their house is on fire,' " Ms. Arndt said. She then telephoned 911. Meanwhile, neighbors banged on the victims' door and tried to enter the house, but the flames beat them back.
Firefighters found Frieda Hodges, about 70, dead in her second-floor bedroom.
Her husband, Donald Hodges, also about 70, was found lying in a second-floor hallway. Mr. Hodges was taken to the Francis Scott Key Burn Center where he was in critical condition last night suffering from smoke inhalation and third-degree burns over 45 percent of his body, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Captain Torres said the fire started in a malfunctioning kerosene heater.
Kerosene space heaters are illegal, the captain said, adding that the house was not equipped with a smoke detector, another violation of the city ordinance.
Damage to the house was estimated at $30,000, fire officials said.