In the chaos that followed a family's flight from their burning Waverly house yesterday morning, Nickol Richardson took a head count of the children under her care and realized her youngest child wasn't there.
Though windows were exploding and metal frames warping from heat, she went back inside for him. She and her son never came out.
The 30-year-old Baltimore woman died yesterday in a fire that also took the life of her 5-year-old son, Marcus Ridgeway. Ten other family members and friends who were in the two-story brick rowhouse in the 600 block of Melville Ave. escaped.
"It just makes it harder that she was able to get out," said neighbor Monessa Keemer, 35, whose daughter played with the boy. "In one instant, you see a person alive and breathing, and in another minute, they're gone. But you never know what a mother's love can do."
The 911 call to the Fire Department came in about 8:20 a.m., said Kevin Cartwright, the deputy public information officer for the Fire Department.
Firefighters arrived within five minutes, he said, and by 8:49 a.m. the one-alarm fire was under control. The first floor was completely consumed, Cartwright said, while the four bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor suffered moderate to heavy damage. Richardson had been living in the house for about a year, neighbors said.
The people in the house were asleep and probably inhaled smoke as their surroundings rapidly caught fire, Cartwright said. Firefighters found Richardson and Marcus together on the second-floor landing.
"It's the maternal instinct to go back inside, against all odds," he said. The victims had third-degree burns and probably were overcome by smoke, he said.
Ambulances took five children to Johns Hopkins Hospital, mostly for burns and smoke inhalation, and one for a fractured ankle. One adult went to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and one to Maryland Shock Trauma Center for treatment of smoke inhalation. Three other adults in the house did not require hospitalization.
The cause of the fire was still under investigation, Cartwright said. There were no smoke detectors in the house, he said.
Clouds of black smoke filled the street, said neighbors who came out of their houses after the sounds of sirens and children screaming woke them up.
"Flames were shooting out the front door," said Victoria Sewell, 32, who lives across the street. "We saw kids jumping out from the second floor and people on the ground helping them."
Scott Waldsachs, 32, lives two doors down from Richardson's house. He was warming up his car in the rear of his house when he heard screaming and saw flames shoot out his neighbor's back windows.
"I ran through my house calling 911," Waldsachs said. But when he reached his front porch, "I dropped the phone to catch the girls who were jumping off [their] porch roof."
He then heard a woman screaming in the basement and broke the window and tried to reach in for her.
"The smoke was too much, so I screamed to her to go to the back. I ran around to the back door of the basement, kicked it in and pulled her out," he said. "I don't know how she survived down there. I only took in 10 seconds of smoke, and I almost suffocated."
The tragedy brought neighbors who barely knew each other together to offer comfort to the distraught survivors. Some offered blankets, warm living rooms and a shoulder to cry on to the Richardsons and their relatives, who gathered in tight clusters along the block.
"People come together in times like these," said Tracie Meadows, who threw her arm around a stranger - the woman Waldsachs rescued. The woman, whose identity could not be determined, was crying as she walked down the sidewalk across from the burned-out house.
Meadows, a minister with the Prayer Chapel of Faith in Christ, said, "She looked so distraught and hurt, I just put my arm around her and told her, `Baby, just hold on.' It could have happened to any one of us. ... The world would be a better place if people reached out more than they do."