A week after fatal fire, solace offered amid pain

March 05, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Eight caskets, seven hearses, 40 pallbearers -- the sheer magnitude of the funeral at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was obvious even to the onlookers who gathered along East Preston Street and Rutland Avenue.

It was a week ago tonight that nine people died in a West Baltimore rowhouse fire ignited by a candle, their source of light since electricity in the house was turned off in October. Yesterday, eight of the victims -- 28-year-old Vilette Jones and seven nieces and nephews -- were eulogized at the church were Ms. Jones had turned so often for comfort.

Reaction to Baltimore's deadliest house fire in more than a decade has been swift. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has restored power to some poor families, many of whom were taking the same risks as the residents of 2035 Hollins St. And emergency legislation that would require smoke detectors in virtually every rental unit has been introduced in the City Council.

"We are trying to use this difficult incident in some ways," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told the mourners who packed the church yesterday. "This entire community feels your pain."

The relatives and friends who attended the service were not interested in framing the deaths as a public policy issue. They were trying to remember eight individuals as best they could.

The glossy program included photographs and brief obituaries for the eight, noting their nicknames -- Lady, Man, Brownie, C.C., Squirt, Red, The Major. Photos were propped up on the white caskets that filled the church's center aisle. Only the fire's tiniest victim, Dionta Rouzer, 7 months old to the day when she died, did not have a photograph.

Vilette Jones had lived in the house with her boyfriend and one of her sons, Lionell. Her two sisters, Tylett Good and Henriett Rouzer also lived there, along with their eight children and Ms. Good's husband, Jackie Roberts.

When the fire broke out just before midnight, all of them were in the house except Ms. Good and Mr. Roberts. Lionell, asleep on the first floor, was able to escape. Henriett threw her 2-year-old, Davon, out a window into a man's arms, then jumped.

Everyone else died, including Ms. Jones' boyfriend, Pierre Dorsey. Funeral services for the 24-year-old man were to be held today.

The dead children ranged in age from 7 months to 10 years. They included Ms. Rouzer's three other children: the baby Dionta, 4-year-old Eldridge Ambrose and 5-year-old Nikita Rouzer. All four of Ms. Good's children died in the fire: 1-year-old Jackie Roberts Jr., 7-year-old Seaira Roberts, 9-year-old Antwain Roberts and 10-year-old Tyler Edwards.

Yesterday, the Rev. Clifford M. Johnson invoked the story of Job in an effort to help the surviving family members cope with their loss.

"I came in naked and I am going out naked," he roared at the end of his sermon, pounding the pulpit as he shouted, "Bless it! Bless it! Bless it! Bless it!"

Outside the church, neighbors gathered. Most were familiar with the details of the fatal fire, although it happened across town.

Sharonda Simpson held her 3-year-old, Dwayne Simpson Jr., tight in her arms.

"Did the little baby die in the fire, Mama?" he asked.

"Yes, she did," Ms. Simpson replied.

"Did she scream?" he persisted.

"Probably."

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