City Council weighs tougher law on smoke detectors after fatal fire

March 01, 1994|By Laura Lippman and Joan Jacobson | Laura Lippman and Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers JoAnna Daemmrich and Gregory P. Kane contributed to this article.

In the wake of Baltimore's worst house fire in a decade, the City Council is considering emergency legislation that would force landlords to install smoke detectors in virtually all rental units in the city.

The emergency legislation, introduced last night, would expand on a state law that requires smoke detectors in dwellings with four or more apartments.

The City Council bill would require smoke detectors in rental dwellings with one, two or three apartments.

City officials say the proposed law would affect an estimated 55,000 units in the city. The measure is being considered after a West Baltimore rowhouse fire that killed nine people on Saturday. "All of those people who died were overcome by smoke," Fire Chief Herman Williams said at last night's council meeting. "It's devastating. We've done so much in going out in the communities and telling people . . . to have something like this continue to happen, it's very, very frustrating."

Seven children and two adults died in a house at 2035 Hollins St. where electricity had been shut off. Fire officials say a candle ignited a fast-moving fire that swept upstairs. Only three people managed to escape: a 14-year-old boy sleeping on the first floor, and a young mother and the 2-year-old son she threw to safety from the second floor.

Two months earlier, seven people, including six children, died when clothing piled on a heating grate started a fire in a West Baltimore rowhouse.

Neither home had smoke detectors, despite a Fire Department program that sells smoke detectors for $6 each and sends firefighters into neighborhoods to distribute fire-prevention pamphlets. Yesterday, "swamped" with calls from tenants, the Fire Department decided to give away 2,000 smoke detectors, Chief Williams announced at a news conference. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke threw his support behind that effort and the emergency legislation. "I will do all that I can to make certain that government acts to protect the safety of citizens," the mayor said. But changing the law cannot dissuade those without electricity from lighting candles and using their gas stoves, said those familiar with the "heat or eat" dilemma. And thousands of homes lack electricity on any given night.

"It was a disaster waiting to happen and I don't think it's going to be the last time," Louise M. Carwell, a Legal Aid attorney, said of Saturday night's fire. She has clients who go months without electricity, she said.

"There are fires all the time here," said Brendan Walsh of Viva House, a soup kitchen only blocks from the Hollins Street rowhouse that was home to 14.

Although only a tiny percentage of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers go without service for more than 15 days, spokesman Arthur J. Slusark said, the utility estimates that as many as 3,000 households are without electricity on any given night.

Yet, BG&E said, 28,000 customers had service cut off last year for nonpayment, down from 38,000 in 1992. Of those who lost service last year, 40 percent had service restored in three days and 70 percent within 15 days, Mr. Slusark said.

As of Saturday night, the families crowded into 2035 Hollins St. had been without electricity since Oct. 13.

Although they still had natural gas service, it is possible the kitchen stove was their only source of heat.

Firefighters said a candle started the fire, shortly before midnight. Lionell Green, 14, was asleep on the first floor and managed to escape. So did Henriette Rouzer, 21, after throwing her 2-year-old, Davon, to safety.

The two children were treated and released; Ms. Rouzer was in fair condition at Shock Trauma yesterday. The other nine people in the house died of smoke inhalation before the one-alarm fire was extinguished just minutes after midnight. It was then that firefighters discovered the bodies on the second-floor. The nine dead included three of Ms. Rouzer's children: Dionta, 8 months; Eldridge, 4; and Nikita, 5. Four other children died, although their parents were not there at time: Jackie Roberts, Jr., 1; Sierra Roberts, 8; Antwon Roberts, 9; and Tyler Edwards, 11.

Villett Green, 28, who was the mother of Lionell, and her boyfriend, Pierre Dorsey, 24, both died in the fire.

The household had a troubled history with BG&E's credit department dating to March 1991. Last year the utility contacted the residents of the Hollins Street house 21 times and twice set up special payment arrangements, Mr. Slusark said.

Drawing on grants and assistance available to those who need help with energy bills, BG&E reduced the $1,600 in late payments to $400. For that payment, Mr. Slusark said, service would have been restored.

Tylett Good, Ms. Green's sister, said she offered BG&E $300 in February, but the utility would not turn the electricity back on for less than $400. So the family chose to stick it out.

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