"That's how we discovered what had happened," she says. "It was, it was," her voice trembles. "I can't describe it."
The firefighters had received a call at 4:27 a.m. from the police car stationed at Gov. Schaefer's house. Battalion Chief Frank Giotis was first to arrive. When he pulled up, the police officer was standing outside on the frozen bit of lawn, gazing at the house. They could see heavy smoke, fire on the first floor.
As the first of four fire trucks arrived, Mr. Giotis sent the men inside with a grim message: There were people sleeping on the second floor, possibly children.
"Whenever you hear that there are children trapped, your heart beats a little faster," says veteran firefighter Thomas Stills. "When we got there, there wasn't that much fire, but the amount of heat and smoke was tremendous. I got one kid out and, bam, went back in and it was like someone was leading me to where the other kid was, right behind the mattress up against the wall."
No one was prepared for the scope of the tragedy.
"Every time I sent people into that house, they came out with more children," Mr. Giotis recalls.
The fire never reached them, but its smoke proved deadly. And heat built up inside the rowhouse until it was like an oven, hot enough to burn skin.
Mr. Giotis summoned seven of the city's 18 medic units.
"There were so many bodies and so much screaming for equipment, it almost looked like a war zone. They had to put the children on the front lawn. The men took off their coats and put them on top and underneath of the kids. And they were bent over them, giving them mouth-to-mouth and CPR."
Two of the children were dead. The rest were unconscious, struggling to breathe.
Mr. Giotis tried to revive two children about the same age as his own: a toddler and a boy about 5 or 6. It was Paul.
"I remember his face and his eyes," he says. "His face was gray-looking and his eyes were really glassy. You could see there was somebody in there, but he couldn't move or talk or do anything."
The 21-year veteran pauses. "I thought they would all die. You could almost say it was a miracle that little boy survived."
Paul was admitted to the intensive care burn unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. His mother was close at hand in one cubicle, his brother C.J. was in another. Micah struggled for life across town at University Hospital.
Jeannette, Nikki, Quentin and Samuel were dead. During the next 48 hours, Roslynn and C.J. would die as well. Bill and Mildred planned a funeral for six.
Blessedly unconscious, Paul's horribly swollen body fought his battles for him during the next few weeks. One grandparent kept vigil at his bedside while the other spent time with Micah.
Bill informed his employers that he would be leaving. He knew he would need to be home full time to help his grandsons regain their strength.
Paul's recovery began slowly. In his first surgery, less than a week after he was admitted, skin from his left thigh was grafted onto his hands. Surgery on his right leg and thigh and abdomen followed. His face, less apt to become infected because it had a better flow of blood than other parts of his body, was covered with bandages and left until last. A tube allowed him to breathe more easily.
On Feb. 9, a full month after the fire, Paul learned what had happened to the rest of his family. But he also learned he was not alone: Three-year-old Micah was still unconscious but clinging to life. Paul moved from the intensive care unit into a new room in pediatrics where his grandparents slept in sleeping bags on the floor.
On Feb. 18, Micah died. Devastated, wanting to spare Paul the burden of more bad news, Mildred and Bill decided to wait before telling him.
The next day, the little boy learned of his brother's death from a news announcement on television.
There was one, all-consuming question.
"Paul asked over and over, 'Why did this happen?' " says Beth Wojciechowski, his occupational therapist and closest friend in the hospital. "That's all he kept saying to me. 'Why?'
"And I said, 'Paul, I don't know why.'
"Then it was, 'Why me? Why did I survive?'
"I said, 'I can't answer that.'
"I think he was dealing with every feeling possible at that point in his life. 'I've lost everyone in my family, who am I going to turn to?' It was just too much.
"At first he called out for his mother a lot. We would reassure him that 'Mommy is not here right now. Mommy is somewhere else.'
"And he'd ask, 'Where?'
"And we'd say, 'Mommy is with God.'
"He'd go, 'OK.' And he would calm down.
"Then he would ask for her again. Finally, he realized that she wasn't going to come."
The person within
A severe burn can eat away the basic shape of eyes and nose and mouth, swallowing the contours that make a face unique. Some burn survivors must learn to live with the faces of strangers, traces of themselves left only in the faces of family.