House in fatal fire had code violations

Dundalk landlord had been cited for detectors, furnace

October 02, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Dundalk house where a mother and four daughters were killed in a weekend fire had been cited in July for eight housing violations, including lack of functioning smoke detectors on the second floor and evidence of problems with the furnace.

A month later, when inspectors found that the deficiencies had not been corrected and after repeated, unsuccessful attempts to reach the landlord of the duplex, the Baltimore County Department of Social Services gave the tenant, Michelle Ferguson, a choice: Accept a voucher to move somewhere else, or continue living there at her own risk.

She picked up the voucher Wednesday, two days before she and her daughters were killed, a county official said.

Ferguson's relatives said she had been using her kitchen stove to heat the duplex - which was rented under the federal Section 8 housing program - because the defective furnace had not been repaired. Firefighters have said the fire appears to have started in the kitchen.

Capt. Glenn Blackwell of the Baltimore County Fire Department said yesterday that the cause of the fire Friday night is unknown.

The fire, in the 3800 block of Dunbar Road, killed Ferguson, 38, and her daughters Ina Johnson, 11; India Johnson, 9; Asia Jones, 2; and Ariel Jones, 1. Thomas Jones, father of the two youngest girls, wasn't home when the fire broke out.

Blackwell said four investigators continued to pore over the debris and remove evidence.

A spokesman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said yesterday that full electrical and gas service was being provided to the house gutted by the fire. The account was in the name of Thomas Jones, and the bill was paid up to date, said Michael Delaney, spokesman for the utility.

The file in the county's housing office covering Ferguson's tenure in the home and a timeline prepared by the county after the fire chronicles difficulties in contacting the landlord, Edmund Ogonowski, to schedule inspections or correct problems. It contains a letter warning him that the county found deficiencies in other properties he owns and that if he didn't take better care of his homes, he would be barred from participating in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 rental assistance program.

Edmund Ogonowski Sr. owns the duplex that burned and many rental properties in the county and Baltimore City that are managed by his sons, Edmund Jr. and John. All of the letters the county sent were addressed to Edmund Ogonowski, with no designation of senior or junior, at an address in Reisterstown.

John Ogonowski said yesterday that he knew of no problems with the Dunbar Road duplex and had not heard from either Ferguson or the county. But he said his brother managed that particular property. Edmund Ogonowski Jr. did not respond to phone messages yesterday.

The county's timeline shows that Edmund Ogonowski submitted a request in June 2000 to rent the three-bedroom home to Ferguson effective Aug. 1, 2000. The office made seven unsuccessful attempts to reach him before finally scheduling an inspection for Aug. 31, 2000. Housing office inspectors noted 10 deficiencies at that time, none of which had to do with the heating system. By Oct. 13, the landlord had corrected them, and Ferguson and her family moved in shortly after.

On March 7, the county sent a letter to Edmund Ogonowski because inspectors had found deficiencies in two other properties.

"We noticed the care of his units was somewhat spotty, and we told him he needed to be more rigorous in the continuity of how he kept up his properties," said Maureen Robinson, spokeswoman for the county Department of Social Services.

After Ferguson's home failed a routine, annual inspection in July, the county attempted to contact Ogonowski four times in writing and twice by telephone to inform him of the deficiencies and the pending termination of the rental contract.

The housing office will not pay rent under the Section 8 program as long as a unit is in violation of standards, Robinson said.

When Ferguson came to the housing office to get a voucher to help her move, she was given a routine, two-hour class on fire safety and other topics, Robinson said.

Firefighters visited neighboring streets last night and gave residents fire prevention literature, smoke detectors and batteries for detectors.

At the Dundalk schools that Ferguson's children attended, psychologists and crisis counselors were present in classrooms yesterday to help pupils cope with the loss of their friends.

India Johnson, 9, was a fifth-grader at Dundalk Elementary School. Pupils and teachers there were shocked that a girl who attended classes Friday was gone.

"It's very sad," said Carole Quental, principal of the 650-pupil school. "We've had a tremendous loss in the community."

At Dundalk Middle School, which 11-year-old Ina Johnson attended, her sixth-grade classmates decided to spend their time writing letters expressing their grief to the girls' family.

"It's the death of a friend, and they're very saddened by the loss of their friend," said Frank Passaro, principal of the 600-child school. "It's a sad fact of life in a community with great poverty."

Sun staff writers Joe Nawrozki and Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

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