Fire kills man, three children

They had moved into Lansdowne house hours earlier

Cause being investigated

Adult was 24

children's ages ranged from 1 to 4

October 31, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A man and three young children died yesterday morning after a fire raced through the Lansdowne house they had moved into the previous night.

The blaze in the 900 block of Catawba Court in the Riverview development broke out shortly before 11 a.m., killing Henry Walter Atkins, 24, Nikolas Henry Atkins, 1, Liam Forrest Levere Wrightson, 3, and Micah Edwin Forrest Wrightson, 4, Baltimore County police said.

Neighbors said the man, the children and a woman in her 20s - identified by her landlord and co-workers as Frances Woodcock - had finished moving into the two-story rowhouse about midnight.

Fire and police officials said the relationship between the children and the two adults could not be determined yesterday, but the landlord described them as a family.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The fire was battled by a neighbor with a garden hose and by Baltimore County firefighters, who arrived at the house minutes after receiving the call.

Two children were removed from a second-floor bedroom, and the man was removed from the first floor. It is unclear where the third child was found, said Lt. Vernon S. Adamson, a spokesman for the county Fire Department.

"I saw a fireman with a baby running out of the house, and he was blowing in the baby's mouth, and he was pumping his chest," said Mary Coleman, who lives in the 900 block of Catawba Court. "The next thing I know, another one came running out with another child. ... The firemen were working as hard as they could."

The victims were in cardiac arrest when they were brought out of the house. The man was pronounced dead at Harbor Hospital and the children at St. Agnes HealthCare, fire officials said.

The fire was extinguished within a half-hour.

Capt. J.L. Brown Jr., a spokesman for the county Fire Department, said the fire apparently started on the first floor near the kitchen.

The family had spent the previous two weeks fixing up the three-bedroom house and unloaded furniture from a rental truck Monday night, neighbors said.

"They hadn't even signed the official papers yet" to move in, said Donald A. Groff, the landlord.

Groff said he rented the family the home for $595 a month after Woodcock approached his sister and said she was looking for a new place to live.

Woodcock, who neighbors said left the house about 45 minutes before the fire began, and Groff's sister worked together at Bass Pro Shop in Arundel Mills Mall, Groff said.

"This young lady told my sister they needed a home to move into," Groff said yesterday. "She had three children, and they had a two-bedroom home before and she said they were looking for something more of a home."

Groff said he owns more than a dozen houses in Lansdowne. He bought the rowhouse where the fire occurred in April, according to county records.

Fire officials said the smoke detectors in the home appeared to be sounding when firefighters arrived.

Doug Haynes, 41, of Rockville was visiting his parents, who live three doors from the victims' house, when he heard what sounded like a smoke detector.

"We just came home from Wal-Mart, and when we pulled up we hear this beeping noise, but didn't see anything," Haynes said. "Then I came out two or three - five at most - minutes later and the flames were coming from the front window."

Haynes ran to the house and was told by a neighbor that young children were inside.

The neighbor threw Haynes a garden hose, and he began dousing the flames, which were shooting from the kitchen window.

"When I heard there were kids in there, I fought as hard as I can," Haynes said.

Chris Thomas, 15, of the 3000 block of Freeway Ave. saw the fire from his front yard and ran to help Haynes.

"I was getting ready to kick the door in," Thomas said. "But they said no. You know when the fire is so hot it puts lumps in the doors. That is where it was, so they said not to kick it in."

As neighbors' rescue efforts were being thwarted by the heat, Engine 362 from the Lansdowne Volunteer Department arrived.

"It was just a regular call until we started bringing children out," said John Lewis, chief of the Lansdowne department.

A 27-year-old volunteer firefighter, who asked not to be identified, removed the first child from a crib on the second floor and began performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He said it took him about 30 seconds to find and remove the child in near-zero visibility.

"The fireman just dove on the baby [to perform CPR] with the baby cupped on his arms, his legs and arms flailing behind," said Bryan Hall, 36, of the 900 block of Catawba Court.

Lewis said another firefighter, Jeremy Burford, 27, removed two other children from the house. Burford was treated for exhaustion and stress, Lewis said.

"He is exhausted, physically exhausted," Lewis said.

The 24-year-old man was brought out of the house a short time later.

Neighbors said they saw Atkins standing outside the house waving goodbye to Woodcock about 45 minutes before the one-alarm fire began.

Adamson said investigators are not ruling anything out as a possible cause, including foul play.

Lewis and neighbors said firefighters should be credited for their efforts.

"Let's just say the Baltimore County Fire Department did an excellent job," Lewis said.

Yesterday's fire was the county's third involving multiple deaths in a little more than a month.

On Sept. 28, a Dundalk woman and her four young daughters were killed in a fire in their duplex in the 6800 block of Dunbar Road.

On Oct. 20, a father and son were killed in a fire at their two-story duplex in the first block of Elizabeth Avenue in Lansdowne.

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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