Dundalk woman, 4 girls killed in two-alarm blaze

About 60 firefighters at scene, officials say

September 30, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A Dundalk woman perished with her four young daughters in a fire that raced through the rear of their duplex late Friday night. She had been using the kitchen stove to heat the house, relatives said yesterday.

The blaze, in the 6800 block of Dunbar Road, killed 38-year-old Michele Ferguson and her daughters Ina Johnson, 11; India Johnson, 9; Asia Jones, 2 and Ariel Jones, 1. Thomas Jones, the father of the two youngest children, wasn't home when the fire broke out.

Firefighters said the fire appeared to have started in the kitchen but were still investigating the cause last night.

Paula Delcid, who lives in the adjoining duplex, said she woke to a burning smell after 11 p.m. Friday. She went outside to find thick black smoke and flames pouring from the rear of the Ferguson home, and immediately ran back in to call the fire department.

"While I was on the phone with 911, I heard a scream and a big bang from next door," she said, referring to a second-story bedroom at the rear of the home.

Firefighters later discovered that that bedroom ceiling had collapsed.

A young man tried to get inside to rescue the family but was forced away by the intense heat, Delcid said. "He touched the doorknob, but it was hot, so he backed off," she said. "It was awful. There wasn't nothing we could do."

Fire officials said they had the fire under control within an hour of receiving the call at 11:38 p.m. The two-alarm blaze drew about 60 firefighters.

The body of Ferguson was found near the front door with two children nearby, according to fire officials. Relatives say authorities told them they found the two older girls in a room upstairs.

All were pronounced dead at Bayview Hospital except the baby, Ariel, who died about noon yesterday in the pediatrics unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Fire officials said that of three smoke detectors in the home, one - located in the basement - appeared to be sounding when firefighters arrived. The fire charred the kitchen and pantry at the rear of the home. A thick layer of soot covered much of the interior.

Ferguson's father, Robert, who lives in Waverly, said his daughter told him she had recently used the kitchen stove to heat the house because repairs on a defective furnace had been delayed. In the past two weeks, she had also purchased an electric heater to plug in upstairs as she gave the children baths, relatives said.

But the owner of the property, Edmund Ogonoski Sr., said he was unaware of any heating or maintenance problems at the house.

"I know the house was just reinspected, I think, in July," he said. "As far as I know, there was nothing wrong. I never knew of any problem with [the furnace]."

His son, John Ogonoski, who manages the property, said: "If she had a problem, she did not inform us of it."

Relatives and neighbors described Ferguson as a doting and attentive mother, always keeping her daughters neatly dressed and encouraging the older girls toward perfect attendance at Dundalk Elementary School.

As word of the deaths spread yesterday morning, neighborhood children arrived on bicycles and scooters to place stuffed animals on the front steps where their friends had lived. They perched a small collection of teddy bears and a tiny sleeping baby doll gingerly on the concrete.

"India was in my grade; she was pretty and kind of shy," said 10-year-old Natassja Pizzini. "It's not right for them to die. It wasn't their time."

Ferguson's parents, sister and her only surviving daughter, 17-year-old Inga Ferguson, who lived with her aunt, arrived early yesterday afternoon to salvage precious mementos.

From room to room, they moved grimly, trying to recall the good times.

A week before, Michele Ferguson had begun working part time at a nearby CVS Pharmacy. Robert Ferguson had last been at the house Thursday morning to take the older girls to school.

"Two days ago, I was playing with my grandchildren right there," said Ferguson, pointing to a corner of the living room occupied by the once-cream-colored sofa. "They called me Pa-Pop. When they heard me come in the door, they'd run downstairs."

One by one they recalled them. Ina, the child who loved puzzles and games. India, the bookworm, who also enjoyed writing and drawing. Asia, who walked on the tips of her toes like a ballerina and whom her grandmother nicknamed "Button." And baby Ariel, also known as "Boopie."

"They were happy-go-lucky kids," said their grandmother, Carol Ferguson.

A graduate of Northern High School, Michele Ferguson had worked on and off as a geriatric aide at several nursing homes. At home, she tried to keep the atmosphere lively. There was always music and singing together and dancing in the living room, her family remembered.

Yesterday, the sooty interior yielded poignant possessions.

There was a three-ringed purple workbook belonging to Ina. Baby pictures with singed edges and scorch marks. Neat stacks of small shirts and pants and socks in an upstairs bedroom. And from some remote corner, a gift box still covered in Christmas wrapping that contained a beaded handbag Inga Ferguson had given her mother years before.

She returned downstairs in tears, clutching it to her chest. Also in the box, a blue scarf - her mother's favorite color.

"We're going to bury her with this," she said.

Sun staff writer Erika Niedowski contributed to this article.

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