Careless smoking was blamed for the deaths early yesterday of two women in a fire that apparently began in the basement and quickly spread through a two-story Catonsville home.
The victims of the 4: 30 a.m. fire in the 200 block of Newburg Ave. are believed to be Helen Gertrude Ricks, 75, and her daughter Francis Haddaway, 45, according to Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard, a Baltimore County Fire Department spokesman, who said the medical examiner could not provide positive identification.
Neighbors said Haddaway was a frequent visitor at the house.
Ricks' son, William Ricks, who was sleeping in the basement when the fire began, escaped unharmed, authorities said.
A second man, Guy W. Thayer, 37, who was renting a room on the second floor, managed to climb out a window onto the porch roof, where firefighters used a ladder to help him escape, he said.
"I woke up coughing and at first, I couldn't even tell if I was really awake," Thayer said as he stood in front of the burned-out house. "I turned on the light and the smoke was so thick that I couldn't even tell that it was on."
After the flames were extinguished, firefighters found the body of a woman at the bottom of the basement steps and the other in a second-floor bathroom, said Hubbard. Thayer noted that he and the other three occupants smoked cigarettes.
"This hasn't hit me yet," he said. "When I got out onto the back roof, one of the neighbors yelled to me that help was on the way. It was really smoky out there and when I looked around the corner of the house, I could see a bright light coming from the basement."
Hubbard said William Ricks was awakened by the smell of smoke and ran out a back door. In an attempt to wake his mother and sister, he banged on the front door several times.
Ricks said he was too upset to talk to reporters yesterday.
Neighbors on the usually quiet street off Frederick Road said they were awakened by the smell of smoke and the flashing red lights of firetrucks.
"I looked out the window and I saw Guy standing on the roof," said M. Elizabeth Leech, who lives next door. "There was a lot of smoke. I could see the flames inside the house through the front picture window."
Leech said she thought Helen Ricks had lived in the house about 25 years and had been a court stenographer in Baltimore.
"She was a very sweet lady," said Thayer, who moved into the house three years ago after he answered an ad for a room to rent. "She was always good to me."