Fatal fire was set, authorities say

Investigators unsure whether blaze was arson or an accident

October 12, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

A fire that authorities said was set swept through a two-story brick townhouse in Turners Station yesterday morning, killing an 18-month-old disabled girl and seriously injuring her mother and older brother.

A man also was found dead in the townhouse on Willow Court, but police and fire officials could provide no details yesterday about his death or why he was in the townhouse.

"We still can't identify him. Due to his condition, we might have to rely on dental records and fingerprints," said Baltimore County police spokesman Cpl. Vickie Warehime.

The woman and her children were found in a front upstairs bedroom, firefighters said. The dead child was identified as Venice Reid, who neighbors said was paralyzed by a brain injury. Her 7-year-old brother, Michael Reid, and her mother, Elva E. Reid, 41, were in critical condition yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

The fire became a homicide case yesterday after authorities determined that a flammable liquid was used to set the fire -- but they could not rule out the possibility that the fire started accidentally.

"It is a set fire, set by human hands," Warehime said. "The question is, was it intentional or accidental? Intentional means arson. Accidental could mean a 7-year-old playing with matches and flipping a match because he got burned and hitting a container of flammable liquid. We don't know."

Authorities also had not determined what liquid started the fire, which began about 7: 45 a.m. Warehime said it could have been lighter fluid, kerosene, gasoline -- "there are so many variables," she said. Fire investigators will test evidence found at the scene to identify what liquid was involved, she said.

The blaze was so intense that two firefighters became trapped in an upstairs bedroom and had to be rescued, fire officials said. Neither was injured.

`Too much fire'

"When I came out my front door, there was so much smoke," said Angelo Carter, who lives on Willow Court and tried to rescue the Reids. "I jumped on the roof [of the porch] and kicked out a window. But there was too much fire."

Carter and others who live in the tidy brick townhouses that line both sides of Willow Court near Avondale Road said they were awakened before 8 a.m. by an unidentified neighbor calling for help.

"I heard two doors down, my neighbor knocking on people's doors, saying, `I need help.' I got up and ran outside," Carter said.

He and others in the neighborhood said the Reids had lived on Willow Court less than a year.

Elva Reid is a registered nurse, neighbors said, but had not worked for the past month or so while she recuperated from elective surgery.

Neighbors, playmates

Venice, whose mother often carried her outside to sit on the grass, was a bright, happy child, neighbors said.

"She was the sweetest little girl," said Willow Court resident Phyllis Joseph, whose son Michael often played with Michael Reid. "I'd say, `I love you,' and she'd say, `You do?' "

Joseph's son also has a physical disability, and she recalled yesterday that Michael Reid was a regular playmate for her son.

"He is about the only kid in the neighborhood who would come play with Michael," she said of the Reid boy. Most afternoons, Michael Reid would knock on the door, asking whether her son could play, Joseph said.

Elva Reid would sometimes come out to the large lawn that divides the townhouses on Willow Court and chat with her neighbors in the evening, Joseph said.

"We were outside just last night, talking," Joseph said. "She told me last night she was going back to work today full time."

Fire officials said the fire had started on the first floor and spread quickly. "It ran up the stairs to the second floor," said Baltimore County Fire Department Lt. Robert C. Rossman.

The fire destroyed the townhouse but did not damage other units in the block, Rossman said. No damage estimate was available yesterday.

Other residents in the area said the apartments had smoke alarms, but Rossman said the first firefighters on the scene heard no alarms.

"If they were there, they were not operable," he said.

Sun staff researchers Bobby Schrott and Dee Lyon contributed to this article.

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