A special little girl, a tragic fatal fire

Remembrance: City neighborhood mourns the death of Laura Newton with tears, toys and notes.

November 30, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Laura Ashley Newton liked to draw little pictures of Teletubbies, and would slip them into neighbors' mail slots every morning. She liked to sweep Gilmor Street clean of trash in front of her small red-bricked rowhouse. She liked to talk about school.

But the 10-year-old autistic child also liked to sneak out of her second-story bedroom window, climb down from a small porch roof and run around the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood. So her mother put up metal bars to keep her daughter safe.

That gated window created a death trap Sunday afternoon, when fire raced through the narrow home. The bars kept Laura from getting out, and kept neighbors from getting in. Laura died clutching a neighbor's hand through the bars.

Yesterday, Laura's friends and relatives stood outside the charred home in the 500 block of South Gilmor St. feeling anger and disbelief.

The structure's front was turned into a memorial -- stacks of teddy bears and other stuffed animals were piled high alongside burned furniture, a water heater and broken toys on the sidewalk out front.

A white bedsheet hung from the second story with a large, handwritten epitaph: "2-22-89 -- 11-28-99. Laura, we will miss you." Tacked to the scarred rowhouse walls were remembrances and cards. "Laura Ashley Newton, from Rena, you are in a better place," read one note, scrawled on a piece of cardboard covering a window.

The girl's mother, Theresa Bolyard Newton, 35, couldn't bear to look at the house and remained secluded yesterday at her pastor's house in Northeast Baltimore.

She said Laura had been diagnosed with autism and attended special needs classes at Edgecombe Circle Elementary School in Park Heights, where she was in the fourth grade.

She also was a patient at the Johns Hopkins Kennedy Krieger Institute, which treats developmentally challenged children. Autism is a disorder in which people become self-absorbed, withdraw socially and exhibit repetitive behavior.

"She would go around saying, `I'm special, but there's nothing wrong with me,' " Newton said yesterday as she waited for her mother and a 12-year-old son who live in Virginia to drive up and help make funeral plans.

Despite emotional problems that made her hyperactive, Newton said, Laura was an honor roll student. Laura also always wanted to help. On Thanksgiving, she and her mother did volunteer work, serving meals to the needy at St. Thomas Lutheran Church on South Pulaski Street.

"She would go around to the tables and ask people, `Would you like to eat? Would you like coffee? Would you like water? I'll get it for you,' " Newton said. "She tried her best."

Newton would not talk about the fire or how it might have started. She told fire investigators she was heating food in a microwave. When she took it out, it was so hot she threw it in a trash can, igniting the blaze. Fire officials said Laura made repeated trips upstairs to get water to put out the fire and became trapped.

But Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman who called the fire "horrific and unimaginable," said investigators have not determined a definitive cause. Laura was the 19th person to die in a city fire this year; 34 died in 1998.

Some relatives and neighbors complained that city firefighters took too long to respond to the house. But Torres said the first 911 call came in at 12: 34 p.m., and the first fire truck, from a few blocks away, arrived one minute and 10 seconds later.

Torres said that people sometimes are so intent on putting out the fire themselves or rescuing people, that "nobody calls the fire department. They think someone else has already done it."

Putting bars on a window does not violate any code or law. John Wesley, a spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said a single-family house requires only one way in or out. Only in multifamily homes would the bars be disallowed.

Nevertheless, Torres warned that the bars, which he said are used for security on houses throughout the city, "should be made so that they can be opened quickly. You put bars on the window, you are imprisoning yourself."

Laura's uncle and next-door neighbor, John Bolyard, 41, said the bars were put up a few years ago to prevent Laura from getting out. He said the bars only covered the bottom pane, and that the top portion of the window slid down.

But Tommy Ragner, 36, didn't know that. He climbed up a narrow pipe to reach the small porch and instinctively broke out the window to reach the crying Laura. He said he didn't think of looking up at the top pane. "She was saying, `Help me. Help me! It's hot in here,' " Ragner said.

"I told her, `Hold on, sweetheart. We're trying to get you out of here.' " But a few moments later the thick smoke became overwhelming. "Her hand fell out of my hand," Ragner said, shaking his head. "I'll never forget that."

Ragner joined other neighbors at the memorial yesterday. Some tacked messages on the front of the house: "Love you always and we'll miss you a lot," read one. "This place will never be the same."

Julia Voljko, who runs a business a half-block away, said Laura dropped off drawings every morning in her mail slot. The last one -- of pumpkins -- arrived Friday.

"She would always come and tell me, `Julia, I like to talk to you.' She was such a good little girl," Voljko said, adding that Laura would often grab a broom and sweep the sidewalk, sometimes without her shoes. "She would say, `I've got to clean, clean, clean.' "

Newton said doctors told her Laura would probably spend most of her adult life in an assisted living community, but Newton said she hoped for more. "Laura had progressed so much over the years, I don't know what she would have been like at 20."

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