The Formstone front had been scorched by the fire and all the windows had been knocked out. Through a second-floor opening you could see the singed spindles of the headboard of a bed. Above and behind the rowhouse, another Amtrak Metroliner glided over elevated tracks, a silver smile across the tired, blighted face of East Baltimore.
A yellow-and-blue plastic tricycle, eerily pristine, as if magically protected from fire, landed on the sidewalk by a thick pile of blackened, smoldering chair legs and bed springs. A firefighter hosed down the mess. Gloved hands tossed more debris through the front window of the rowhouse at 2424 E. Eager. Firefighters with tools picked at charred lathing strips in the walls. A man in a short-sleeve shirt held up a piece of black wood to show how a plastic baby shoe had melted to it.
By now, everyone knew what had happened in the house, and the more we learned -- the more I talked with people in that neighborhood -- the worse the story got.
A man with a tiny, sleeping baby in his arms stepped up to a yellow plastic crime-scene ribbon that shook in the fine summer breeze.
"Did someone get hurt in there?" asked the man, one hand cupped about the infant's head.
"Four children," he was told. "Four children are dead."
Early today, a fifth victim of the fire, a child 12 years old, died.
"We had four of them in the back of Medic 10," a firefighter said, pointing to one of the block-shaped city ambulances with one hand, an oxygen bottle in the other. "Two of them were little -- I mean, really little. Babies. I couldn't tell whether boy or girl. And we worked on them hard -- two firefighters, two medics. They were dying. We knew they were dying."
The story got worse. Homicide detectives and fire investigators arrived, and some of them wore boots into the blackened rowhouse to look for evidence. The fire had been deliberately set. The victims were children. Again. Two years old. One year old. Five years old. Two months. Twelve years old.
"Did they already take them to the hospital?" asked a 10-year-old boy named Damon. He was standing in a crowd across from the gutted rowhouse.
"Yes, they did," I told him.
"Did they put them in an ambulance?"
"There was a child shot right near here last night," I told a woman behind little Damon.
"Collington Avenue," she nodded.
"I know," I answered, meaning I knew because a newspaper editor had told me. I did not know from having spent the night in this neighborhood.
"That little boy's aunt was just here," the woman said.
That little boy was 2-year-old Michael Gordon. Monday night, a bullet from an automatic weapon pierced his tiny left wrist. You can walk easily from Eager Street to Collington Avenue where the shooting occurred. It's a well-shaded street, right near St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church, and yesterday morning, police officers were knocking on doors and handing out Stop-The-Tears anti-crime posters there. Ray Wade took one of the posters to hang in his rowhouse window, at Collington and Ashland.
"I was sitting right over there with my buddy when the shooting started," Wade said, pointing to a green park bench against a Formstone front. "There was a group on the corner by the church. I had to run myself."
The shootout -- some 30 bullets were fired, according to police -- spread down the street, to where little Michael Gordon was sitting in his mother's arms. He was the 18th child under the age of 15 to be shot in Baltimore this year.
"No conscience," said Jeff Thames, a security guard at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. "These guys who do the shooting, they have no conscience about shooting anybody standing around, little children or not."
Thames was standing a block from the fire scene on Eager Street. He had just come from a grocery store with heavy security glass separating customers from clerk. Suddenly, a police patrol car stopped in the intersection of Milton and Chase, its roof lights started flickering and its siren wailed. Another Amtrak train slipped across the elevated tracks. Fire trucks started to leave the scene on Eager Street and return to station.
Thames and I agreed that the fire, and the shooting the night before, represented criminal behavior so lunatic it defies understanding. Things were bad when he was growing up in this neighborhood, Thames said, but not this bad.
"If adults had things to settle, they had fist-fights in the street," said Thames, who is 31 years old. Or if there were guns, kids were kept out of the cross-fire.
Just then, a car with a Stop-The-Killing bumper sticker -- the second one seen in 10 minutes -- pulled up to the corner and a man got out, yelling to Thames, "Hey, watch my car while I go in the store, got my briefcase in there."
"Me and my brother moved my parents out of here," said Thames. "We moved them to Northwood . . . 10 years ago. We tried to get them away from this garbage."
Then he mumbled something about his brother. An MTA bus made the corner from Milton to Chase. I couldn't quite understand.
"Cold Spring and Loch Raven," Jeff Thames said.
"What happened?" I asked.
"My brother, Darryl, he was a city employee. He stopped to use the phone, Cold Spring and Loch Raven. It was a robbery. He was shot in the chest. Last November 5."
"He died?" I asked, hoping against hope that the story, for once, would not get worse.