A candle turns into a killer

March 01, 1994

As a result of the devastating fire of 1904, Baltimore has one of the nation's strictest fire codes. Regrettably, in recent years even tough regulations have failed to prevent the city from becoming one of America's leaders in fatal house fires.

In a tragedy over the weekend, nine people of three different families, seven of them small children, died after a candle turned their rented West Baltimore row house into an inferno.

That candle was a primitive way to light the house. Electricity had been turned off in October, when unpaid bills reached $1,600. Under a Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. policy, gas had been left on for the winter to provide the tenant with some warmth. But although the house in the 2000 block of Hollins Street had an oil furnace, heat was not on despite the bitter cold. That presumably was for lack of oil. But even if it had fuel, most oil or gas furnaces need electricity to power them.

"I cannot understand how they could have survived without electricity for four months," Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said yesterday. "I don't understand a lot of what went on in this house."

Over the past several years, BG&E, in cooperation with several private and governmental organizations, has developed an impressive array of emergency programs to provide energy assistance for those in need but unable to fully pay for it.

In this case, that seemingly comprehensive safety net failed to work. The utility says repeated efforts to straighten out the subscriber's non-cooperation problems with required minimum payments could not be resolved.

The Hollins Street fire should trigger a review of existing emergency provisions by BG&E and the Maryland Public Service Commission.

That is the easy part. The difficult part is to convince people who live in utter poverty to stop gambling with their fates and to assume some responsibility over their safety and lives.

Heating homes with gas jets or kitchen ovens is so common in certain sections of Baltimore, notes a landlord, that "I'd venture to say that one-third of people don't use their oil burners. The gas company is far more lenient than the oil company."

Stringing extension cords, which can overheat and cause fire, from neighbors' units to someone without electricity also is common. And too many people disregard a city ordinance that expressly prohibits the use of kerosene space heaters.

One of the easiest ways to protect a family is to use a smoke detector. Yet none of the houses that have been sites of fatal fires this year had such a simple and inexpensive safety device.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.