Fire barred rowhouse rescue tries

Sudden blaze's smoke kept out wife, neighbor

January 11, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The wife of a 70-year-old disabled man killed in a fire that engulfed their East Baltimore rowhouse Friday night tearfully recounted yesterday how she tried to rescue him.

"I couldn't get him," said Geneva Louis, 60, of the 500 block of N. Castle St., the site of Friday's blaze. "I tried, but I couldn't get to him."

Benedict A. "Frenchie" Louis died in the fire, which also destroyed three vacant houses on either side of the home that the Louis family shared for nearly a decade. Geneva Louis and her 22-year-old niece, Mia Gardner, escaped with Gardner's two children, ages 2 and 4.

Investigators have not determined the cause of the fire. Geneva Louis, who was staying at the Mount Vernon Hotel last night, said that the evening had been pleasant before turning deadly.

"I was cooking dinner for him," Louis said. She was in the kitchen with her niece's youngest child while her husband was in a first-floor bedroom off the dining room. She said her husband suffered a stroke six months ago and could not walk.

She said that as she cooked she noticed smoke coming from the dining room. Her niece began banging on the floor upstairs, but Louis did not know why until Gardner appeared at the back door warning of a fire.

Louis said her niece had jumped out a back bathroom window onto an overhang outside the kitchen and then dropped to the ground.

As Gardner escaped with her son out the back door, Louis heard her niece's daughter in the living room. Louis grabbed the child and also fled out the back as the smoke thickened.

"I said, `I'm going back for my husband," Louis said. "Then the smoke hit me in my face and I turned back to the door to get some air. I tried again but I couldn't.

"He couldn't walk. He was looking for me to come and get him," she added softly, then stopped to cry.

Louis, who is a Virginia native, said her husband moved to Baltimore in the late 1960s from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where French is widely spoken. That's how he got the nickname. She said he worked most of his life as a welder. They had been married 31 years.

The Louises' neighbor, Vidius Franklin, 51, said she had also attempted a rescue but that the smoke was too thick.

"I tried to crawl in," said Franklin. "I got into the kitchen, but the smoke was too black."

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