Police Officers Lawang Hyman and Michael Minor were waiting for a tow truck to haul a stolen car from a West Baltimore street when they saw smoke billowing from a rowhouse around the corner.
They crashed through the front door, raced up a narrow smoke-filled staircase and rescued three women, including an amputee, from the three-story house in the 2000 block of N. Payson St.
But the officers couldn't open a door, blocked by debris, where Henry Brianstein, 50, was trapped. Firefighters arrived moments later, about 9 a.m., hacked the door down with an ax and pulled Brianstein outside. He was badly burned and had suffered a heart attack.
"They thought he was deceased, but he started moving," said Police Sgt. Bradley R. Thomas. "It's miraculous."
Brianstein was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was in critical condition last night.
The fire was the latest in a series in the city that have increased during this cold weather snap, which left a smattering of snow and temperatures in the teens.
Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. praised the two officers, who each have a little more than a year's experience. "They risked their lives trying to rescue people," Williams said.
Both officers were treated at Shock Trauma for smoke inhalation.
The officers, Western District Capt. Gary D'Addario said, "wanted to beat the odds. ... We have had officers who have gone into a fire and never came out."
Police identified the rescued women as Clara Downs, 77, Mary Holland, 63, and Lorraine Williams, 43.
While that was a single-alarm fire, several multiple-alarm fires have broken out in the city in the past several weeks, including a three-alarm fire Wednesday that damaged three North Broadway rowhouses and left six people homeless.
Fire officials said more than 600 fires each were reported for October and November, and December is on a pace to exceed that. Previous months averaged about 400 fires.
Fires have claimed 24 lives this year, up from 19 last year, the lowest number of fatalities in a year since the department began keeping records in 1938.
Many fires are set in vacant dwellings, Williams said, where vagrants and drug addicts commonly go to keep warm or shoot up. A homeless man, whom authorities have been unable to identify, was killed Sunday in a vacant-house fire on Normandy Avenue in West Baltimore.
Williams said yesterday that he has "very many concerns" about the number of fires and pleaded with the public to avoid using candles for light and heat, as well as illegal space heaters.
"It's Christmastime, and we should be pleading for toys or gifts for children," Williams said. "But I'm pleading for safety. I don't want to see this be a long, cold, and hot winter for fires."
The Fire Department gives free smoke detectors -- and will install them -- to any city resident who asks. Fire officials said they did not find any detectors in the rubble at Payson Street.
The rowhouse, appraised at $12,000, is owned by George F. Evans, 78, of Baltimore County, who said he rents rooms to several tenants.
Evans said a management company is responsible for the day-to-day operations of his 13 city properties.
Housing spokesman Zack Germroth said the house is listed with the city as a single-family dwelling. He also said there is no management company on record.
Fire investigators had not determined a cause of the fire yesterday.