Teen's well-meant efforts fanned flames of fatal fire

April 24, 1993|By Michael James and Richard Irwin | Michael James and Richard Irwin,Staff Writers

Six-year-old Angela Addison died hiding in a closet, hoping she could escape the flames that raged through her East Baltimore rowhouse and killed her sisters, ages 2, 3, 4 and 5.

For city firefighters, little Angela's desperate attempt to hide in a burning building is nothing unusual -- children are seldom told what they should do if their house catches fire.

Ten children ages 6 and under have died in city fires so far this year. Seventeen died in 1992.

"This latest fire typifies a lot of the wrong things that happen. The kids just didn't know what to do," said Capt. Hector L. Torres, a city Fire Department spokesman.

"One of them took it upon himself to put the fire out. He didn't call the Fire Department, and he didn't try to get the family out of the house until it was too late."

The fire occurred in the 1300 block of Ensor St. early yesterday.

Fire officials went back to the neighborhood in the afternoon and passed out 400 leaflets that said, "An unfortunate tragedy has occurred in your neighborhood. Learn to prevent it."

Angela Addison and her sisters -- Ashley, 5; Melody, 4; Gabrielle, 3; and Brittany, 2 -- were pronounced dead on arrival at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The blaze was started about 1 a.m. when a teen-age resident of the house, Craig Addison, tried to ignite a furnace pilot light with a lit piece of paper, only to set fire to nearby trash.

Firefighters said the house had no smoke alarm.

By the time the boy had given up trying to fight the fire himself, it had gone out of control.

"We've made an effort to teach people about fire prevention, but unfortunately it's a tough sell at times. In this case, it would have saved some lives if a few simple procedures had been followed," Captain Torres said.

Chief among those is that anyone discovering a fire in their house should immediately make sure family members are alerted, Captain Torres said.

The Fire Department should then be notified, and "if there's still some time left, then you can fight the fire," he said.

Young Addison, who escaped unharmed from the blaze, had gone to the basement with his 14-year-old brother, Willie, to investigate why the furnace was apparently malfunctioning.

"I was trying to get the pilot light going," said Craig, "when the flames [from the lighted paper] got bigger."

The paper set fire to nearby trash that quickly began to spread throughout the basement.

As his brother ran upstairs to get water, Craig attempted to extinguish the flames by beating them out with clothing.

Capt. Stephen Fugate, a fire investigator, said the youngster believed he was doing the right thing, but beating the flames with clothing helped only to spread the fire.

Failing to extinguish the flames, the two teen-agers ran upstairs and alerted their mother, Cynthia Addison, 37.

In the meantime, flames consumed a portion of the basement near the furnace before racing up the basement stairway.

"The stairway acted as a chimney," said Captain Fugate.

He said the fire charred several of the steps leading to the first floor.

Once the flames reached the first floor, they consumed the living room, dining room and kitchen before racing up the stairs toward the second floor, where many of the victims were sleeping.

"There was nothing to stop the flames," Captain Fugate said.

As the house filled with flames and thick smoke, the mother was able to gather two of her daughters, Kimberley, 6 months, and Michelle, 7.

She ran out the front door with the children to a neighbor's house.

Following her were Craig and Willie. Craig, said a neighbor, ran back at least once to try to rescue his sisters, but he couldn't get past the front room.

In the neighbor's house, Mrs. Addison, clothed in a bathrobe, waited to hear the fate of her children.

A Fire Department chaplain later told Mrs. Addison that five of her nine children were dead.

Moments before the first of more than 50 firefighters arrived, four men, Melvin Tyson, 27, of the 1300 block of Ensor St.; Troy Reed, 22, of the 1400 block of Aisquith St.; Edward Thomas, 27, of the 1500 block of Aisquith St., and Ray Fields, 36, of the 1000 block of E. Preston St., tried to get into the house, but they were beaten back by flames and smoke.

"We were trying to get into the back window from a roof outside the kitchen when I heard a kid crying inside," said Mr. Tyson.

He said he and the other men removed the rear door from its hinges and threw it through the rear windows, but the flames made it impossible to enter the inferno.

"A few minutes later, we no longer heard the child crying," said Mr. Reed.

Two Eastern District policemen, Officers Alan Savage and Charles McDermott, also tried to enter the house through a second-floor rear window.

"We couldn't get in because the flames were pouring out the windows," said Officer Savage. "It was just too much fire."

Shortly after firefighters entered the house and beat out the flames, they found four of the dead children in a bed in what was left of a second-floor front bedroom.

A total of 17 people have died so far this year in city fires. On April 9, in another East Baltimore fire, two children ages 3 and 4 died in a rowhouse fire in the 1100 block of N. Milton Ave.

Their 47-year-old grandmother died later of injuries she suffered in the blaze.

The cause was careless discarding of smoking materials.

Fire officials report 47 people died in city fires in 1992.

Seven of those who died were in fires caused by heating equipment problems, such as a malfunctioning heater or children placing objects in the furnace, fire officials said.

On the leaflet that city firefighters passed out yesterday in the aftermath of the fatal blaze, they recommended two main strategies: having a workable smoke detector and having a preplanned escape route.

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