5 children die in Baltimore fire set by arsonist

July 08, 1992|By Michael James and Roger Twigg | Michael James and Roger Twigg,Staff Writers Staff writers Melody Simmons, Laura Lippman and David Michael Ettlin contributed to this article.

Baltimore police questioned several suspects last night in a fatal fire at an East Baltimore rowhouse, which killed five children yesterday after an arsonist broke in and doused the floor with a flammable liquid.

Agent Doug Price, a city police spokesman, said officers were called to the home Friday to investigate an incident that may have become the motive for the blaze.

Eastern District officers were dispatched to the residence -- where 13 people were living -- for a domestic dispute involving a fight in the house, police said.

Some of the people involved in that fight were identified as suspects in the arson. None of the suspects was charged last night, and all were released after questioning, police said.

The fire was set about 8:30 a.m. and spewed thick black smoke that trapped residents in the house in the 2400 block of E. Eager St.

TTC The dead included a 2-month-old boy, Damien Cook, whom firefighters carried from the home in a charred plastic baby seat, a sight that horrified neighbors who watched the blaze as it gutted the home.

One of the suspects was identified by a child who was rescued from the home. Police said the child pointed out the man as he stood among a crowd of spectators.

"It's become more complex than our investigators originally figured," Agent Price said. "They've changed directions a couple of times."

Also killed were Gregory Cook, 1; Takia Cook, 2; and Russell Williams, 5. Another child, Antoine Lucas, 12, died at 12:05 a.m. today at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where 3-year-old Deon Cook remained in critical condition in the pediatric intensive care unit.

The relationship between the children had not been determined last night, said Capt. Hector Torres, a city Fire Department spokesman. Three firefighters received minor injuries battling the fire.

Firefighters said they entered the blazing house and found the children in the pitch-black smoke. The children's faces were covered with heavy soot and the intense heat had blistered their bodies, the firefighters said.

Roberta Williams, 32, who lives next door to the scene of the fire, hurried her two children out of their rowhouse and watched from the sidewalk as victims hung from the burning windows screaming for help.

"I was scared to death," she said. "I've never seen nothing like this. The baby was dead -- the car seat was black," she said, shaking her head.

When firefighters arrived, six children were trapped on the second floor. Heat was so overwhelming that a firefighter on a ladder had to halt his attempt to enter through a second-story window.

Lt. James D. Rubeling, 40, a 13-year veteran of city fire Engine 24, led three other firefighters in through the first floor and up the stairs.

"It was pitch-black on the second floor. We physically got down on our hands and knees and crawled around feeling for the bodies," Lieutenant Rubeling said.

"You feel for them first in the beds and then in the corners and closets," Lieutenant Rubeling said of the search. "You can't see what you're doing but you know the difference between grabbing a bag of clothes or a child."

Lieutenant Rubeling, who has two young children of his own, found one of the children. He took the child outside but said he doesn't even know which child he carried.

"We were hoping that we wouldn't find anyone in there, that they had gotten out before we arrived," he said. "When you find them, there's no emotion. You do what you have to do."

A psychologist offered counseling yesterday to the firefighters who fought the blaze.

Many who witnessed the fire lamented about how the neighborhood has fallen to violence, drugs and domestic disputes. A 2-year-old child was shot Monday night by a stray bullet fired on North Collington Avenue, about two blocks from the fire.

"Drugs are flying everywhere," said Joyce Williams of the 700 block of N. Belnord St., whose sister lives near the fire. "It's a shame. It's getting bad around here. If it ain't the drugs, it's innocent children being hurt for no apparent reason."

A group of neighborhood children were among those who watched outside. They said neighbors knew there were children inside, and yelled for firefighters to save them.

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