NW house fire kills five in family 2 women, 3 children die despite rescue try

January 15, 1998|By Peter Hermann and Jamie Smith | Peter Hermann and Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

For three years, Francine Roy and her three small children shuffled from house to house, forced out by overcrowding and lead paint contamination.

Then last month, she returned to her deceased parents' crowded home on Norwood Avenue.

Yesterday, a raging fire swept through the 1 1/2 -story Northwest Baltimore house where Roy grew up, killing her, her children -- ages 23 months, 3 and 4 -- and her 20-year-old niece.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. had shut off power to the house in the 5200 block of Norwood Ave. on July 25 after Roy's father, B. James Roy, died. The request came from the deceased man's granddaughter, Antoinette Manago, 23.

At the time, the house was empty.

But over the ensuing months, people returned to the Forest Park family home built in 1921. And no one, BGE officials say, had the power restored.

Neighbors and victims' relatives said the family used kerosene lanterns and the kitchen stove for light and warmth.

Occupants had apparently gotten some electrical service by jury-rigging a power cable, fire officials and neighbors said.

"They were just trying to keep their babies warm, and five people lost their lives," said Deborah Lunn, 39, who has lived across the street for two decades and watched as Roy's boyfriend of 20 years, Charles Williams, tried to rescue the trapped occupants.

"Francine was at the window yelling, 'Help me, help me,' " Lunn said. "But the fire was like a big hand, grabbing and engulfing.

"It was terrible. There was a big fireball, and all of a sudden you didn't hear her anymore and you didn't see her anymore."

Fire and police investigators had not determined a cause yesterday, but they were questioning five survivors and examining evidence that included charred floorboards, sections of a wooden staircase and a kerosene lantern found in the rubble.

4 The house was not equipped with smoke detectors.

The victims were identified as Juanita Roy, 20; Francine Roy, 37, and her three children, Anthony, who turned 3 on Jan. 1, Antonie and Antonia. The ages of the latter two victims were unclear; one was 23 months and the other was 4 years old.

All apparently died of smoke inhalation and were pronounced dead at the scene.

Juanita Roy was found lying on the floor next to a side door. Police said the bodies of the children and their mother were lying side by side on a mattress and box spring that were on the floor of an upstairs bedroom.

The deaths come days after fire officials announced a decline in fatalities over the past two decades.

Twenty-four people died in fires in 1997 and 22 lost their lives in 1996. An average of 53 people were killed each year in Baltimore fires between 1974 and 1988.

Officials attributed the recent drop in deaths to a campaign to provide free smoke detectors and batteries to needy families and to send a firefighter out to install the devices.

Since 1994, firefighters have distributed more than 45,000 free detectors.

"We're in the schools. We're in the churches. We've got billboards plastered all over town, and now we have a fire and we lose lives and smoke detectors could have helped save them," said Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., who visited the scene.

"There is no need for any house in Baltimore City to be without a smoke detector."

The fire was first reported at 5: 20 a.m. and quickly went to two alarms.

Five of the occupants had escaped by the time the first firefighters arrived and reported heavy fire on the first floor and smoke throughout the dwelling.

John Harris, 34, a neighbor, was one of the first people to see the fire and attempted to rescue the trapped family members.

"I was laying in my bed. I heard a crash like glass breaking and I looked out my side window and I saw flames coming out of the kitchen area," he said.

He saw Francine Roy's brother, Tyrone Roy, hanging out a second-floor window. "I told him to jump and he jumped out," Harris said.

"We started breaking windows, trying to get in there," Harris said. "There were so many flames. The firemen weren't even there yet. We tried two or three times to go back in there -- we yelled and screamed and called their names.

"We kicked the front door in, but the flames shut us out," he said. "The fire swept through there [in] no more than four minutes.

"It was terrible. Once the flames engulfed the house, we knew there was no way they were going to make it out."

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said it will take a while before investigators can determine a cause because the house was so extensively damaged.

The spokesman said it has not been determined how the electricity was hooked up to the house or whether that contributed to the blaze.

"We have not ruled out anything," Torres said. "Every possible source of [the fire] will be looked at inside of this house."

Family members, friends and neighbors gathered at the fire scene yesterday morning and prayed in a tight circle as the grim procession of body bags passed by.

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