Two young boys died in a fire that swept through their second-floor bedroom yesterday morning, only a few minutes after their mother left their Northwest Baltimore home to buy food, authorities said.
Police identified the victims as Jason, 3, and Austin, 1, the sons of Jetiera Banton, 24.
Police and fire officials said they were still investigating the cause of the blaze, which started about 10:20 a.m. in the 3900 block of Reisterstown Road.
Firefighters arrived a few minutes after receiving the call and found the children dead in the bedroom, likely victims of smoke inhalation, officials said.
As firefighters finished putting out the small blaze, police officers spotted Banton approaching the house with a bag of food in her hands, neighbors and police said.
After learning that her children were dead, Banton began to sob, one neighbor said.
"She was totally out of it," said Vanessa Givens, 47.
At the fire scene, Banton told officers that she left the house about 10 to 20 minutes earlier to visit a local shop and buy lunch for at least one of her children, police said.
Banton is the mother of three other children, all younger than 10 years of age, who were in school at the time of the blaze, fire and police officials said.
Yesterday, as firefighters tossed the charred remnants of children's clothes, stuffed animals and furniture into a heap in front of the house, neighbors said they were shocked by the deaths.
Several said Banton was an excellent mother who was often seen playing with her children on her front porch and paying close attention to their activities.
"She is a good mother," said Tracy Scott, 30, a neighbor. "She keeps her eye on the kids. There were never any signs of neglect."
Tishaea Stokes, 19, said she trusted Banton to watch over her 3-year-old son Ti'yone who often played with Jason.
"You would always see her playing with her children on her front porch in the summer," Stokes said. "She took care of them."
But Stokes' stepfather, Stephen Cox, said that he became worried about Banton's young children when he realized a fire had broken out in his neighbor's house.
After running outside his home and hearing people shouting, "fire, fire, fire," Cox said, he kicked Banton's front door open and ran up the stairs toward the boys' bedroom.
However, the smoke was too thick to penetrate, he said, so he was forced to go back outside.
"She tends to leave them there without any supervision," Cox said. "That's why I figured the kids were in there by themselves."