Keeping the lights on

January 12, 2004

IN A HOUSE without electricity, a candle tips over, and two boys die. Davon Dortch, 11, and his brother Fidel Russel, 7, weren't responsible for the power bill, but they paid the price when it went into arrears.

Their deaths continue a grisly tradition. In 2000, three children and their grandmother died in a fire in a West Baltimore rowhouse without electricity. In 1994, nine people - seven children - died in a rowhouse fire. In 1982, 10 people - seven children - died and three were injured in a Northeast Baltimore rowhouse blaze. There are more such stories, summer and winter, in the city and across Maryland.

Did Davon, Fidel and the others do their homework by candlelight? Did they wash with cold water? Were they often chilled, because the blower on the gas furnace couldn't work without electricity?

Did these kids tell anyone they had no electricity at home? Or did no one pay attention?

Here, in one of the richest states in the nation, in the early dawn of the 21st century, a thousand or so people sit in the cold and dark, unable to pay their utility bills. Help doesn't reach them, or they don't reach for it. Both can be fatal mistakes.

Power is a necessity in the city. It's also the law: In Baltimore, to live in a dwelling without electrical power is a housing code violation. It is the responsibility of the resident - renter or owner - to ensure that the juice stays on. But being responsible doesn't just mean paying bills; if one doesn't have the money, being responsible means reaching out for help.

The city, state and federal governments all have grants and loans to help get the lights and heat turned back on, and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has automatic extensions and customer reps to rearrange bills or point to where to get aid. In Baltimore, city help starts with a call to the emergency assistance line at 410-396-5555; state help starts at local Department of Social Services offices or during energy expos, school visits or by calling 1-800-352-1446. In winter, BGE workers contact residents in person to warn of coming shutoffs and give out numbers to call to get help. But all require the bill-payer to take that first step.

Today, city housing authority staffers are taking their own extra step. They plan to go to each home on BGE's current shutoff list, bringing blankets, flashlights, portable safety heaters and applications for assistance. They did the same last year after the Presidents Day blizzard.

Last winter, power companies across the state shut off electricity or gas service to homes 6,609 times, according to the state Public Service Commission. Of those, BGE, which serves Baltimore and Central Maryland, tallied 2,698. Utilities say that in the vast majority of cases, residents get the power back on within 72 hours by paying at least part of the bill. Some, still, do not.

They court danger, to themselves and their neighbors - fires can easily spread along rowhouses. On a block with a house that's always dark, and children going in and out, it's well worth the moment it may take to ask the parent, "Are you doing OK?"

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