Two immigrants killed, 3 hurt in blaze at east-side rowhouse

Fire in city highlights cramped living conditions for foreign-born workers

11 shared Baltimore St. house

February 21, 2004|By Laura Vozzella and Doug Donovan | Laura Vozzella and Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Fire swept through an East Baltimore Street rowhouse shared by 11 Latin American immigrants early yesterday, killing two men, injuring three others and calling attention to the cramped living conditions of foreign-born laborers in the city.

"They're like tenement houses from the 1900s," said Bill Lewin, a neighbor who complained to city officials in October about overcrowding and other issues at the three-story house in the 1600 block of E. Baltimore St.

The cause of the blaze was under investigation. Housing inspectors had investigated the home in November and found no evidence of overcrowding, said Melvin Edwards, a city housing spokesman.

Firefighters called to the scene at 3:15 a.m. found one of the dead men on the third floor and the other on a stairwell leading from the second level to the third, said Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright. Officials were not immediately able to determine their names.

The fire deaths -- the 12th and 13th in Baltimore this year -- are part of a rash of recent fatalities. The city had four fire deaths as of this time last year.

Four or five other tenants were huddled on a second-story cornice as rescue workers arrived. Juan Martinez, 35, jumped from the cornice and was listed in critical condition last night at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center burn unit with smoke inhalation, second- and third-degree burns and injuries from the fall.

Salvador Ramos, 24, leapt from a third-floor window and was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital with pelvic and leg injuries. His condition was not available last night.

Other tenants who sought refuge on the cornice dropped safely to the street, said Damaso E. Guzman, one of the men who escaped that way. He was treated at Johns Hopkins for minor injuries and released.

Awakened about 2:30 a.m. by the commotion of his housemates scrambling to escape, Guzman was unsure how the fire started. He said his housemates said it was deliberately set by two women who had come to the house demanding money; fire officials were unable to confirm that account last night.

Theodore Saunders, commander of the city's fire marshal's office, asked anyone with information about the fire to call 410-396-7546 during regular business hours.

Eleven men from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Honduras and El Salvador lived in the house, splitting an $800 monthly rent, plus utilities, said Hector Hernandez, 27, an immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, who lived there. He came to the United States six months ago and has been looking for custodial work. Others in the house had jobs in construction or, like Guzman, scrap metal salvage. Guzman, 36, emigrated from San Miguel, El Salvador, four years ago.

Their living arrangements apparently violated city housing rules, which prohibit more than four unrelated people from sharing a house, Edwards said.

But overcrowding is not uncommon, several immigrants and neighbors said, because the workers have low-wage jobs and are trying to support relatives in their native lands.

"Latinos, you know, they look out for each other," said Jose Ruiz, City Hall's liaison to the Hispanic community. "They've come a long way and they're here to work and they end up living in places like this."

Ruiz said he was working with community groups to collect clothing and other assistance for the men, who lost most if not all of their possessions. The Red Cross was providing emergency shelter.

The house is owned by Vasilios D. and Lemonia Mavrophilipos of Baltimore, who could not be reached for comment.

Their two grown sons, Drs. Zacharias and Dimitrios Mavrophilipos, were at the scene, trying to assess the damage. They said their father rented the home to a man and his grown son. The doctors, surgeons who used the first floor as a business office, said they were not aware that 11 men were living there.

"Who was staying there last night, I don't know," said Dimitrios Mavrophilipos.

The fire underscored tensions in the neighborhood -- where gentrified Washington Hill meets the growing "Spanish Town" of Upper Fells Point -- between professionals who started moving in during the 1970s and two waves of immigrants.

The couple who own the Formstone house came decades ago from Greece, raised a family there, ran the Rainbow luncheonette on the first floor, and sent their three children to medical school.

They said their father was happy to rent the house to immigrants chasing the same American dream.

The brothers said they had had problems with neighbors who started moving in 30 years ago under an urban-renewal program that sold abandoned houses for back taxes. The newcomers came with the means to gentrify, but also strong ideas about what did and did not belong in the neighborhood, the brothers said.

Lewin and other neighbors dispute that, saying their only concern is for health and safety. They said "cat-sized" rats regularly scurried to and from the house, which until recently had trash filling the back yard and blocking the fire escape.

Responding to neighbors' complaints, housing inspectors cited the Mavrophiliposes for those violations in November. A Jan. 2 reinspection determined that all violations had been corrected, except for flaking exterior paint.

Inspectors never found any suggestion of overcrowding, Edwards said.

"What we found were four bedrooms with one single bed in each bedroom," Edwards said. "So that's what we had to go on."

Sun staff writer Antero Pietila contributed to this article.

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