Owner sought in fire deaths

City, BGE meeting to help households without electricity

Candle started fatal blaze

June 13, 2000|By Peter Hermann and Laurie Willis | Peter Hermann and Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Baltimore prosecutors and housing officials are searching for the owner of the Amity Street rowhouse that was without power when four people died in a fire Saturday, and said yesterday they are investigating his jumble of properties.

To prevent such tragedies, representatives from City Hall and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. began a series of meetings last night to quickly identify and get aid to homeowners struggling to pay utility bills.

"There is no excuse for any home in this city to be without electricity," said Zack Germroth, a housing authority spokesman who said his agency will try to survey each home in the city to determine who is with and without power.

One element being investigated in Saturday's fire is who failed to get electricity turned on to the house, which was occupied by a family of five who lived without heat through part of the cold winter or air conditioning in the sweltering spring.

Fire investigators determined that a candle caused the fire that claimed the lives of Lily-Bell Posley, 53, who used a wheelchair, and her grandchildren, Shydeim Scott, 2; Nyjerra McCray, 4; and Marquan Williams, 6.

A fourth sibling, Dominique Derrico, 10, remained in critical condition yesterday at Johns Hopkins Children's Center with burns covering 60 percent of his body. The children's mother was not at home at the time of the fire; the grandmother was visiting from Pennsylvania.

Housing officials said their investigation will be difficult. Obtaining electricity is usually the responsibility of tenants, and the listed owner has no outstanding code violations on at least three of his houses, including Amity Street.

Building inspectors and city prosecutors said they want to talk to the man who bought the blue, three-story brick house for $2,500 in 1996 from a man the housing authority says has one of the city's worst records of code violations.

"We want to look at everything associated with this gentleman's properties," said Germroth.

More than 25,000 city residents seek emergency funds to keep electricity flowing to their homes each year, but officials acknowledged that they have no idea how many people might be living without heat, lights or air conditioning.

Germroth said the city's $8 million emergency fund "is a life-saving program, if we can get it into the hands of people who need it. ... We definitely have a problem." Assistance is available even to people with outstanding bills.

As city officials scrambled yesterday to find solutions, friends of the young victims struggled to understand what had happened.

A makeshift memorial that began at the house Saturday with stuffed animals, grew yesterday - nearly 75 remembrances covered the boarded door by afternoon.

Two cemeteries - Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens and Lorraine Park Cemetery-Mausoleum, offered to donate plots, but funeral arrangements were not complete yesterday.

Marquan's kindergarten teacher at James McHenry Elementary School, Xenia Fenwick, said many of her students could not understand that their classmate wasn't coming back.

"He's not really gone, is he?" was among the questions the teacher tried to answer.

Marquan was among 30 students in Fenwick's class. She said her students spent yesterday talking about him and discussing his death with crisis counselors. Marquan, who with Dominique had enrolled in February, had been scheduled to participate today in his class' closing ceremonies, similar to graduation.

"He has a little part to do in this record `Skat Like That'," Fenwick said. "He says the first part, and the children would echo. They kept asking me today, `Is he going to do his part?'"

Fourth-grade teacher Carol Hartman said Dominique is a good, bright student who is "very well mannered and very well liked."

She expressed shock at learning that Dominique and his siblings were living in squalid conditions just four blocks from the school.

"He never gave a clue about the situation at home, that they didn't have electricity," Hartman said.

Neighbors said they, too, were unaware that the rowhouse lacked power.

"I wish the kids had told school officials about the electricity," said Reicia Jones, 22, whose daughter, Kionna Timmons, 5, was in Marquan's class.

Added Rhonda Henderson, 25, whose son, Shawn Shields, cried as he walked up to the house yesterday: "There are a lot of places to help. She could have gotten the lights cut on somehow."

BGE said it cut power to the Amity Street house last July because of nonpayment of bills and it assumed that customer was still living there. Officials said they have since learned that the man moved.

The family involved in the fire apparently moved in three to six months ago. No one from the utility apparently knew that a new family had moved in; BGE said it received no calls asking that power be restored to the Amity Street address in the past six months.

It is a housing code violation to live in a dwelling without electrical power, but Germroth, the housing spokesman, said no one called to report the situation.

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