'They were babies, children' 6 siblings die in rowhouse fire

parents, infant escape

March 04, 1997|By Peter Hermann and Jean Thompson | Peter Hermann and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

At the William Paca Elementary School yesterday, a classmate of 9-year-old Bradley Walker bolted from his classroom into a hallway, crying, "He was my friend."

Parent liaison Shirley Dessesow intercepted him with a hug and a prescription for grief: "It's OK to cry."

All over the East Baltimore school, the children mourned Bradley and five siblings who died in a house fire early yesterday. Three were students there, one graduated in June -- and all perished a short walk from the four-story building.

With red-rimmed eyes and tearstained faces, staff and students listed the names: Brandon Allen, 12, who had advanced to middle school in June; Bradley, a fifth-grader and ready volunteer; Joseph Miller, 7, a slow but determined learner; Frederick Ebanks 3rd, 5, a bundle of energy.

Also found dead were little brother Ernest Ebanks 3rd, 2, and sister Sharkira Walker, also 2. Their parents, Earnestine Walker, 29, and Frederick Ebanks Jr., 27, and their 23-month-old son, Dwayne Ebanks, escaped unharmed.

The children perished in a fast-moving blaze that started minutes after midnight in the living room of their rowhouse in the 600 block of N. Lakewood Ave.

Thick smoke billowed up a narrow staircase and smothered the sleeping youngsters in their second-floor bedroom.

Their parents, carrying the infant, climbed out a bedroom window and were helped to safety by a neighbor who, blinded by smoke, hoisted himself up a wooden beam to reach them.

Fire investigators had not determined a cause yesterday, but the elder Ebanks said a living room television set had been left on all night. "That certainly will be looked at," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman. "But we haven't ruled anything out."

No smoke detector found

Ebanks told fire officials a smoke detector had been installed in the downstairs kitchen, but Torres said firefighters found no evidence of one. Houses such as this one are required by law to have detectors, but the responsibility is the tenant's, not the owner's.

The two-story red brick rowhouse is owned by Deidre Morgan and Timothy Spearman, a 10-year veteran officer with the Baltimore Police Department. They could not be reached for comment. Housing officials said there were no outstanding code violations on the property, which was purchased in 1988 for $35,000.

The blaze brings to 13 the number of people killed this year in fires, two more than at the same time in 1996, when 22 people died.

It was the worst fire in terms of fatalities since a Feb. 27, 1994, blaze killed seven children and two adults in West Baltimore. A month earlier, another fire on the west side claimed seven lives.

Two months ago, four members of four generations of a single family were killed in a fire in Reservoir Hill.

Family members who gathered yesterday at the children's grandmother's house were too shaken to talk. Cars slowed in front of the charred rowhouse on Lakewood Avenue all day, and people on foot paused in pouring rain and shook their heads in disbelief.

"It was a tragedy," said neighbor Ann Greene, 47, who remembers watching the children play out front in the hot summer months. "I spoke to them and they'd say, 'Hi Miss Ann.' They were very polite. They were babies, children."

Outside the narrow red-brick rowhouse near McElderry Street was a pile of charred furniture, mattresses and toys -- sad remembrances of more joyful times: plastic bowling pins, racing cars, red boxing gloves, bed sheets with cartoon characters.

Classmates remember

At the William Paca school, where 900 students are packed into a space built for 470, classmates dealt with the tragedy in a variety of ways. One child, 7-year-old Hakeem Dinguall, had seen it unfold.

"I was across the street, and the fire was busting out of the windows," said Hakeem, who lives across the street.

The wide-eyed child suddenly shifted to a more positive memory about his friend and fellow second-grader, Joseph. "He liked to play," the youngster said. "We used to play racing and hide-and-go-seek." Joseph's favorite hiding place, Hakeem said, was "under the steps."

Some classmates had helped Joseph with his handwriting, and with the subtraction and addition and carryovers that he struggled to master. Others, who lived on Lakewood Avenue, were his playmates as well.

"Joseph's father took us to the store together," said neighbor Antonio Foster, 7. "I liked the Freeze Pops; he liked the Tastee Cakes."

'A good thinker'

Bradley's teacher, Bernice Smith, remembered the fifth-grader's smile. "He was always the last person out of my classroom, and I'd have to say, 'Come on Bradley, let's go,' " Smith said. "He'd say, 'Awww, Ms. Smith.' I could never get him out." Bradley was a boy with "great thoughts, a good thinker," she added.

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