A little shaken, but safe Fire: A quick, heroic response by a relative and neighbors saves the lives of seven children and their grandmother.

August 13, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Nine-year-old Sharon Johnson was playing with her baby sister when a cloud of thick, choking smoke engulfed her third-floor bedroom in East Baltimore early yesterday.

"It was hot and dark, and I couldn't see," the girl recalled, standing in the street near her fire-damaged home. "I was holding onto my bed, and I was screaming. Then, my uncle came and got us."

Sharon was one of seven children between 3 months and 9 years old who were rescued from a burning rowhouse yesterday -- carried to safety by Sharon's uncle Keith Watson and several neighbors who rushed past leaping flames and through blinding smoke to save the young lives.

The children's 54-year-old grandmother, Hannah Watson, jumped from a third-floor window and into the arms of neighbors, suffering only a sprained ankle in the 20-foot fall. One rescuer, identified only as Eric Johnson, was briefly hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

"I thank all the people who helped save the children," said Keith Watson, 28, who was in a second-floor bedroom of the burning rowhouse at 1507 E. Biddle St. when he heard his smoke alarm sound and rushed upstairs.

Keith Watson and at least two neighbors brought the children to safety, but they couldn't reach Hannah Watson, who was reluctant to leave until all of her grandchildren were safely out of the house.

"I could hear people screaming down the street," said Lonnie Butler, 31, one of the rescuers. "I didn't think of the fire. I just wanted to get to the kids. I wanted to make sure the children got out."

Another rescuer, Duane Harris, 37, said he climbed up a narrow staircase and reached out to Hannah Watson. "There was a lot of smoke," he said, as he breathed from an oxygen tank and was examined by a paramedic. "I just couldn't reach her hands. She )) was too scared."

Fire Inspector Michael Maybin, a department spokesman, said the one-alarm blaze was reported about 11: 10 a.m. and was extinguished within 15 minutes. All of the people who were inside had gotten out by the time the first firefighters arrived, leaving only a small, brown-and-white cat named Kitty to be rescued.

Investigators said yesterday that they had not determined a cause for the fire, which started in a back room on the second-floor of the three-story Formstone rowhouse. The second floor was destroyed, while other areas sustained smoke and water damage. Nine of the 10 occupants were home at the time.

Only one child was injured. The 3-month-old suffered smoke inhalation and was taken to an area hospital. Maybin said neither the child's name nor the name of the hospital was immediately available.

Thankful relatives lined up five of the rescued children for the news media outside a friend's rowhouse a half-block away. The children were Sharon Johnson, 9; Jamell Speaker, 8; Maurkeda Johnson, 7; A. J. Johnson, 6; and Andrell Speaker, 3.

Sharon was the only child who wanted to talk about the frightening experience. Standing on narrow nearby Dallas Street, dressed in a light-blue shirt dotted with yellow flowers, the Madison Square Elementary School student spoke quietly and slowly as her siblings and cousins looked on shyly.

"We were in a fire," she said matter-of-factly, adding that she did not know what sparked the blaze. "I was playing with my sister when it happened."

As Keith Watson darted upstairs, thick smoke poured from several second-floor windows and flames could be seen from the street.

Johnson, Butler and Harris said they ran inside as other neighbors shouted for help.

After rescuers failed to coax Hannah Watson out, people on the sidewalk convinced her to jump. Anthony Harper, 31, was one of several people who helped to break her fall. "I was just glad to see her come out of there," he said. "She was scared to jump, but she was happy when she got down."

Later, as firefighters threw charred furniture and other belongings from a second-floor window, Hannah Watson's sister, Elizabeth Peterson, 62, leaned against a nearby wall. She hugged Tatianna Joyner, 9, who lived in the rowhouse with her cousins but was playing at a friend's home when the fire began.

Told of the rescues made by neighbors, Peterson smiled and said: "Good for them. They are good human beings."

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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