W. Baltimore house fire leaves 3 children, grandmother dead

4th child hospitalized

candle started blaze

June 11, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Three children and their grandmother were killed early yesterday when a candle used as the only source of light sparked a fire in a narrow West Baltimore rowhouse that had been without electricity for nearly a year.

A fourth grandchild, Dominique Derico, 10, suffered severe burns and was in critical condition yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Deputy Mayor David Scott called it a "tragic day" for Baltimore as he stood outside the charred blue rowhouse at 129 N. Amity St., which had no smoke detectors, and said the fire demonstrated the "sense of urgency" in repairing the city's poorest neighborhoods.

It took police most of the day to locate the children's mother, who was visiting friends in another part of Baltimore, to learn the identities of the victims. They are: LilliePosley, 53, and her grandchildren: ShydiemScott, 2; NyjerraMcCray, 4; and MarquanWilliams, 6.

Friends turned the front of the rowhouse, flanked by vacant lots, into a makeshift memorial, with teddy bears and other animals placed between metal window grates and on the steps. Remembrances were scrawled on the plywood used to board up the door.

"I will always keep y'allin my heart," reads one.

Another says: "I'm sorry to hear such a thing like this could happen."

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. cut off power to the house in July because of nonpayment. Posley and her family moved in two or three months ago, but the company said no one asked for service to be restored.

City officials repeatedly said at a news conference that there are programs to help people pay their bills and get out of living in squalor.

"This can be avoided," city Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne said.

But neighbors confronted city officials at an afternoon news conference and complained about conditions on Amity Street - a mix of vacant lots with 6-foot-high weeds and condemned rowhouses next to sparkling new dwellings that are part of a renovation effort - and about plans to close five fire stations, including the one closest to the fire scene.

KatherineMcKnight went eye-to-eye with Mayor Martin O'Malley's spokesman Tony White and called the mayor's promises to turn the city around "phony."

Yesterday's deaths bring to 13 the number of people killed in city fires this year. Last year finished with 19 deaths, the fewest number of fatalities since the department began keeping records in 1938.

Assistant Fire Chief Carl E. McDonald said investigators found evidence that candles had been used to light the house, and that one either burned down or toppled over shortly after 4 a.m. and started the fire in a second-floor hallway.

Firefighters said they got their first 911 call at 4:15 a.m. and arrived three minutes later to find the upper floors engulfed in flames. They had the fire extinguished in 15 minutes, but by then it was too late.

Department spokesman Inspector Michael Maybin said Posley and two children were found in a second-floor bedroom; the others were found on the third floor. All were rushed to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, but Maybin said there was little hope that four of the victims would survive. They were pronounced dead on arrival.

Neighbors said they awoke to sounds of children screaming about 4:15 a.m. and rushed to the house in the Poppleton neighborhood, but could not get past the thick smoke and flames that were pouring from the second- and third-floor windows.

Maybin said it appeared to firefighters that the victims never awoke. But many neighbors said they could hear screams.

"I heard the kids hollering, `Help!' and I was trying to get them to come to the front of the house," said EricAtkinson, 23, who kicked in the front door and got to the top floor of the burning house. "They wouldn't come."

Atkinson heard a boom: "Then I didn't hear the kids no more." He retreated in anguish.

"I tried my best," he said. One of his fingers was burned, and a hand was cut by falling glass.

Friends and neighbors of the victims spent yesterday at the burned house, a block from the house where Edgar Allan Poe lived from 1832 to 1835, sifting through charred diaries, Bibles and books piled on the sidewalk. At least two of the children attended James McHenry Elementary School.

Most knew Dominique, a rambunctious child who bounced from home to home and had friends throughout the neighborhood.

AntwoneHeadspeth, 10, slowly named the children and then sat down on his step in near silence.

"I saw the smoke," he finally muttered. "We all used to play around and hang together."

Fire investigators described the dwelling as a rooming house in which up to 16 people crowded at one time. The victims were the only people home yesterday.

The children's mother, who was not identified, was visiting friends in Baltimore and was not home when the fire broke out. Her other daughter, Ashley McCray, 12, was visiting friends in New York.

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