'We're hanging tough' after fire, family says

March 01, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane and Melody Simmons | Gregory P. Kane and Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writers

"The main thing is, we're hanging tough," said Jackie Roberts Sr., 36, as he described the anguish caused by the deaths of nine people, including his three children, in a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse on Saturday.

Seven children and two adults perished when the fire engulfed a house at 2035 Hollins St. The adults were Villett Green, his girlfriend's sister, and Pierre Dorsey, a friend of Ms. Green's.

Yesterday, Mr. Roberts recalled the blaze while sitting in an Northeast Baltimore rowhouse surrounded by Ms. Green's friends and relatives.

Mr. Roberts said he and his girlfriend, Tylett Good, 26, left the house minutes before the blaze erupted. Ms. Good is the mother of Mr. Roberts' three children -- Sierra Roberts, 7, Jackie Roberts Jr., 1, and Antwan Roberts, 9, -- and another child, Tyler Edwards, 11. All four died in the blaze.

Mr. Roberts said he and Ms. Good were in a nearby store purchasing diapers and baby formula when they learned of the fire.

"We smelled smoke when we were in the store," Ms. Good recalled. "We never made the connection" that the house was ablaze.

Mr. Roberts and Ms. Good returned to find the home in flames.

Ms. Green's friends and relatives had gathered at a home in the 700 block of E. 41st St., where 56-year-old Phyllis Rouzer -- the mother of Villett Green and the grandmother of the seven children who died -- has been staying with in-laws.

Phyllis Rouzer got the news of the fire that killed her daughter and grandchildren about 11:30 p.m. Saturday.

"I was lying down," she said, when her other daughter, Henriette Rouzer, 21, called her.

Henriette Rouzer survived the fire by jumping from a second-story window after throwing 2-year-old Davon Rouzer out to save him.

The dead included three of Henriette Rouzer's children: Dionta, 8 months; Eldridge, 4; and Nikita, 5.

"My sister-in-law answered the phone," Ms. Rouzer recalled. "She told me, 'Just come to the phone. Something wrong.' "

Paramedics had already taken her daughter away by the time Ms. Rouzer got to the phone. A woman she knows only as Carol was on the line and "told me to get over there because there had just been a fire and everybody was dead."

Ms. Rouzer says she was too shocked to say anything further.

Tyreece Morris, 27, the sister of Henriette Rouzer and Villett Green and the aunt of all the children who died, remembered her deceased sister as one who loved children and her sister who survived the fire as someone who "did her best to save the other children," she said.

"She said she went reaching for the children. She threw one child out the window -- she didn't know who it was. She went back to grab for more children but grabbed only sheets. She felt fire on her hand; that's when she jumped out of the window. She landed on her side. That's how she broke her arm," said Ms. Morris, relaying the conversation she had with her sister in the hospital.

Ms. Morris said funeral services for her sister Villett and her niece and six nephews will be offered at 11 a.m. Friday in the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church at 1801 E. Preston St.

After the blaze was extinguished, gloomy firefighters from Truck 13, at 43 S. Carey St., returned to their firehouse. Some of them had placed the nine victims into body bags and carried them from the charred remains of the rowhouse.

"I told them not to think about it and to keep going," said Lt. Michael Williams, who returned from Hollins Street with a grim feeling. "I told them to keep a positive attitude."

Yesterday, Lieutenant Williams, 31, said he was in better spirits. He had put the tragedy behind him, he said.

"I got over it by coming home looking at my beautiful wife, drinking a couple of beers and getting on my motorcycle," he said. "Is there sadness? I doubt it. We're used to it. When you see it [deadly fires] a couple of times, you get used to it."

Truck 13 is the busiest ladder truck station in the city. It received more than 2,500 calls for service last year, while other truck stations received an average of 1,254 calls, city fire Capt. Hector Torres said yesterday.

Since last fall, firefighters from Truck 13 have responded to three fires that had a total of 20 victims -- most of them children. Truck 13 responded when a 28-year-old woman and her three children were killed last fall on Edmondson Avenue and its personnel pulled four dead children out of a rowhouse on Edgewood Street in January. That blaze later claimed three other victims.

"In our job, we never go out when it's a picnic, it's always a tragedy," said Lt. Paul Alisea of Truck 13. He did not battle Saturday's blaze, but described the feelings that tear at firefighters when they return from fatal blazes.

Lieutenant Alisea said the key to survival after working a fatal fire is to return to the station house and talk, talk, talk. The firefighters who hold in their emotions -- often based on guilt over failure to save lives -- often risk emotional breakdowns, he said.

Firefighter Steve Lehman, the first to enter the second floor of the Hollins Street rowhouse, said he spent Sunday replaying the tragedy in his mind and talking about it.

"I went up the ladder and into the window and shined my light inside," Mr. Lehman said. "There was bodies everywhere. Four by the front window . . . they were burned. I shook my head. What are you going to do?

"I left the house and went two houses down and just sat on the steps. Frowning, of course. I try to do the best I can and I don't feel like I failed. But it stays with you. It's very sad. I've got a little chip in my throat from talking about it now."

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