Two men die, two women hospitalized in city fire

October 28, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

Althelia Nettles was fast asleep early yesterday in the basement of an East Baltimore rowhouse. She thought she heard someone yell, "Get Piggy!"

"I didn't pay it no mind," Nettles said, thinking back on the scream for the home's de facto matriarch, known by her nickname.

Then she heard the smoke alarm and realized the house was on fire. She fumbled in the dark, grabbing her coat before escaping out the back.

Two men died in the fire that was put out a half-hour later. They were the 16th and 17th people to perish in city fires this year. Two women suffered injuries and were transported to nearby hospitals. Ten people were staying in the dwelling in the 1900 block of E. Hoffman St.

Nettles ran around the house and saw a friend standing in the front doorway. He was on fire.

"I said, `Somebody, help!' " she recalled. Using her coat, she tried to smother the flames. But he kept pulling away.

He was Robert Hunt; he died. "Every time I close my eyes, I see it," Nettles said a few hours after the 4 a.m. fire. She was standing in front of the charred remains of the two-story house, her body wrapped in gray blanket and a borrowed coat. "It is something I won't get over."

Her cousin, Ernest Hickman, also died in the blaze, suffering smoke inhalation and burns. Firefighters found Hickman's body upstairs.

"There was very heavy smoke and fire," said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the Fire Department.

Residents said there was no electricity or heat in the house. A spokeswoman from BGE said they had not provided service to that address for a decade.

Officials said last night they had not determined a cause. It took firefighters about 30 minutes to bring the fire under control. Cartwright said that Hickman was on fire when the first engines pulled up to the house.

Hickman's mother, an elderly woman who uses a wheelchair, dragged herself out of the house. Her name is Zelada Hickman, but everyone calls her "Miss Piggy."

She suffered burns on her arms and was treated at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Another woman was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Zelada Hickman lived in the house for 15 years, then spent some time at a nursing home. She had moved back into the house two months ago, neighbors said.

"Anybody could come to Piggy's house," said Debbie Trusty, whose mother lives nearby. "She didn't say no. She'd always say, `Come on over, baby.' "

The two houses on either side are vacant and were also damaged in the fire. Two other burned rowhouses can be seen from East Hoffman and North Washington streets, and residents said the area is known for drug activity.

Charred debris from the burned house spilled onto the sidewalk. Pictures, a Bible and the insides of a mattress lay on the ground.

Two of the survivors gathered with friends to talk. They said propane tanks used for heating were empty.

"I woke up, and the whole building was engulfed. That's what woke me," said Andrea Scott, 42. She was wearing a borrowed yellow sweat shirt and sweat pants.

When she came out of the burning house, she saw Zelada Hickman lying in a nearby gutter. "I picked her up and moved her away from the house," she said.

An arson detective, just back from trying to identify the victims at the morgue, interrupted to ask if Hunt had ever broken his arm. Sheila McDonald, a neighbor, began to sob, and the detective gave her a hug.

McDonald saw the fire from across the street and said Hickman had left her house only two hours before the fire ignited.

"When I looked at the fire I knew he wasn't going to make it," she said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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