Fire victims are remembered with tears, laughter BALTIMORE CITY

April 06, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Vibha Kohli didn't always like her social worker, Judy Dobson. But last Christmas, Ms. Kohli tried to make amends when she gave her a black-and-gold scarf.

"I haven't worn it until now -- it would have looked perfect on Vibha," Ms. Dobson said at a memorial service yesterday for Ms. Kohli, Ethel Paugh and Barbara Taylor, who were killed Saturday in an arson fire at My Sister's Place Lodge, a Baltimore shelter for homeless women.

Ms. Dobson's voice broke. She recovered, then laughed. "She would say to me, 'Darling, just put it on,' " the social worker recalled.

Tears, then laughter. That was the pattern at the service at Our Daily Bread, a downtown soup kitchen, where the homeless and those who care for them celebrated the small victories in these three women's lives.

The fire at My Sister's Place Lodge at 609 Park Ave. started about 2 a.m. Ms. Kohli died after jumping from a second-story window. Ms. Paugh and Ms. Taylor were found in their rooms, dead from smoke inhalation.

Police have made no arrests in connection with the fire.

Those who knew the victims shared their memories during the brief service.

Ethel Thompson, a gospel singer and organist, recalled how Ethel Paugh gave her a bottle of perfume. Others spoke of Ms. Taylor's sweet high voice and unfailing politeness.

But Vibha Kohli seemed to have made the deepest impression on those assembled. They described a woman who was personable and bright. She delighted in giving nicknames to the staff at the lodge. And she was the kind of person who would borrow a nickel, then share the soda she bought with it.

"She was the light of the lodge, she gave out an aura," said Joan Smith, a supervisor at the lodge.

"She and the other ladies were the spark for us," said Ms. Dobson.

The Rev. Tom Bonderenko, who officiated at the service, said Ms. Kohli was a familiar sight downtown.

"I always saw her be-bopping around town," he said. "If she was still with us, she'd probably be at the stadium [for Opening Day]."

Sitting in the front row, Ms. Kohli's family listened gratefully to these comments. They had seen a change in her over the past year, said her father, Harry Kohli. But it was only at the service that they realized how far their daughter had come.

"I felt very, very comfortable," said Mr. Kohli, an importer, who lives outside New York City. "She was showing love, getting love."

Just last week, his daughter had promised to come home for Easter. It seemed that the pattern of her life -- getting close to her family, then running away, then getting close again -- was finally changing.

Mr. Kohli and his wife, Suniti, received the news of Vibha's death as they were preparing for a niece's wedding.

They found themselves in Baltimore, planning a funeral.

They dressed their daughter in a red bride's gown, a Hindu tradition. The body was then cremated at a local funeral home.

"In our religion, we think of it as going to one's lover," Mr. Kohli said.

"We dressed her with all the love we could muster, and we sent her off."

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