Three women killed in fire at group home

April 04, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Vibha Kohli had come so far, from New Delhi to New York to Baltimore, from living in the streets to earning high marks in her college classes.

Her pilgrimage ended yesterday when she and two other women were killed in an arson fire at My Sister's Place Lodge in downtown Baltimore.

In the hours that followed the 2 a.m. fire, those who knew Ms. Kohli said she had turned her life around in a way that inspired the other formerly homeless women at the home and their social workers alike.

"We are looking to provide that hope again to the other women," said Mary Ellen Vanni, an adviser to Catholic Charities.

Ms. Kohli, who jumped to the sidewalk from a second-floor window in the front of the building, was pronounced dead at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

The exact cause of her death was not known yesterday, investigators said. An autopsy is planned.

The two women who died with Ms. Kohli were found in upstairs rooms. They were pronounced dead at the scene, apparently because of smoke inhalation, a fire department spokesman said.

Three other women sustained minor injuries.

Ms. Vanni said yesterday of Ms. Kohli, "Life was really on the upswing for Vibha. Thursday, I had looked at an efficiency apartment for her."

In other words, Ms. Kohli, 28, was ready to complete her rise from homelessness to group living to independence when she died because of an unknown arsonist.

Ms. Kohli, who came to the United States as a teen-ager with her family, was taking accounting classes at Baltimore City Community College, getting B's in two courses last fall and a 92 on a recent test.

Both the other two who died were measuring their success in smaller but, to them, equally noteworthy steps, said those who knew them:

* Ethel Paugh, at age 42 homeless for four years before settling into the home, had bought an eyebrow pencil. She was going to take better care of her appearance.

* Barbara Taylor, a 46-year-old college graduate with a history of mental illness, had spent a nice day with her mother. In her trademark oversize sunglasses, she'd been a familiar figure at the McDonald's on Franklin Street near Greene Street and at the bus stop in front of the old Howard Street Greyhound station. Lately she had been renewing her ties with her family.

Who set the fire when all in the building were asleep -- and why -- remained a mystery yesterday. Scott Keller, a homicide detective, said he had no suspects, no witnesses and no motive. Officials at My Sister's Place could think of no reason why anyone would try to burn the group home. The site must have been randomly chosen, they said.

The fire department spokesman said about 30 people were lodged in the dormitory-style buildings, 19 in the building that HTC burned. While the fire was reported about 2 a.m. by a neighbor, the fire alarm in the home sounded, alerting residents, the spokesman said.

The group home at 609 Park Ave. was opened by Catholic Charities about six years ago. The lodge is an adjunct to the organization's daytime shelter for homeless women on West Mulberry Street, called My Sister's Place .

Fifteen of the most vulnerable of the homeless women at the day shelter, many suffering from mental illnesses, can live in the group home for a low rent.

The space was leased from the United Methodist Women, which has operated a boarding house known as the Park Avenue Lodge at 607 Park Avenue for nearly 75 years. The two buildings stand 50 feet apart, but are linked by a room that spans the gap like a bridge. Some of the college students and the working women new to town who live in the boarding house slept in rooms in the group-home side of the complex.

Mary Wu, who came from Taiwan to study at the University of Baltimore, was in her third-floor room at Park Avenue Lodge when she realized the building was on fire. Fighting heavy smoke, she opened a window and climbed down a drain spout to safety.

Eight hours later, picking at pancakes supplied by the Red Cross, she said, "I'm still shaking."

Meanwhile, an insurance adjuster was meeting with Sister Gloria Rubio, executive director of the Park Avenue Lodge.

The first floor of 609, where someone had used a flammable liquid to start the fire, was burned out. Smoke damage was heavy upstairs, not as bad at 607.

The complex's residents spent the rest of the night after the fire ++ in a downtown hotel.

The residents of 607 were planning to return to their boarding house last night.

The women of My Sister's Place Lodge gathered upstairs at the daytime shelter on Mulberry Street and then, at around 3 p.m., filed out to spend the night at another hotel.

By then they had received counseling. Staff members said these women, many of them living in what amounted to a family setting for the first time in years, have formed a tight group.

There was sadness but little despair yesterday, accustomed as they are to hard times.

"It's phenomenally calm," Ms. Vanni said, "I think these people have been through so much in their lives that they are very thankful for one day at a time."

Financial donations may be made to: Park Avenue Lodge, 607 Park Ave., Baltimore, Md. 21201; and My Sister's Place, 123 W. Mulberry St., Baltimore, Md. 21201.

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