Harford community mourns the deaths of five fire victims, embraces family members

Legacy of life, love, hope

January 26, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

To Jerome Shropshire, it was the "big blue house on the hill, the one you can see for miles."

He had lived in the Abingdon home for 17 years and raised many of his 10 children there. Though his education ended after the third grade, he served as PTA president when his children were in elementary school and encouraged all of them to earn a college degree.

"Our father was upwardly mobile," said Louisa Shropshire Green, Shropshire's oldest daughter, who is a teacher at Havre de Grace High School. "We never knew we were poor."

Green and her siblings recalled their father this week as they mourned his death -- Shropshire, 72, perished along with his wife, Annette, 47, and three of their grandchildren in a fast-burning fire that destroyed the Philadelphia Road house last Thursday.

The family members have turned their attention to making funeral arrangements, as well as tending to their half-sister, Shaunette, the 22-year-old daughter of Jerome and Annette, whose children -- Donald White, 4, Derrick White, 3, and Jhaniyah Davis, 9 months, died with their grandparents. Shaunette, who is expecting another child, also has a 7-year-daughter, Iyanna, who was at school at the time of the blaze.

"Our biggest concern now is for [Shaunette], Iyanna and the baby," Green said.

While trying to cope with the loss of their loved ones, the family members have found solace in the outpouring of community support. One of Harford's largest churches has opened its doors to the family for the funeral service. A funeral home, a florist and a limousine company all have donated services, and a cemetery has given plots so that the victims can be buried near the family home.

"All this is a comfort to me," Shaunette Shropshire said yesterday. "I cannot replace my children, but this shows that people care for me."

The family plans a public viewing from 10 a.m. to noon tomorrow at Mountain Christian Church, 1824 Mountain Road, Joppa, with the service to follow.

"We are so overwhelmed with this generosity that we have opened the funeral service to the public so they can grieve along with us," Jerome Shropshire Jr. said.

The family members, who gathered one evening this week at Green's home in Havre de Grace, recall growing up in a household marked by close family bonds and an emphasis on determination, hard work and education.

Shropshire worked for 37 years at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point, becoming the first black foreman at the plant where he started at age 15, said Jerome Jr., who also worked at the plant before he joined the Navy.

When the elder Shropshire retired from the steel company, he started several businesses -- a sub shop, a deli, a radio and TV repair shop -- and moved to the house that Green, who also is a real estate agent, found for him.

"That house was his life," said 55-year-old Francis Kelly, whom the family took in as a teenager and now calls brother. "He always considered it being in the country."

The home was the hub of activity for a growing family that today includes 77 grandchildren.

On the last Sunday of August each year, the house has been the site of a family reunion. Relatives came from across the country -- including Chattanooga, Tenn., where Shropshire is from -- to gather for the festivities. Shropshire set up a tent in a grove with two dozen picnic tables and served bushels of steamed crabs and slabs of barbecue ribs.

Shropshire reared his children to be self-sufficient, productive members of the community, said his oldest son, Jerome Jr.

The siblings point to Shaunette as an example of the family's stick-to-it nature. After a couple of rocky years on her own, Shaunette and her children moved back home with her parents and pledged to attend Harford Community College. On the morning of the fire, she had gone to the school to buy textbooks for the start of classes this week. She plans to study nursing, she said.

"Shaunette is showing us all that she can do that," Jerome Jr. said. "She made a pact with our father that she would go back to school. We will help her fulfill that commitment."

In addition to helping with funeral arrangements, the community organized a celebration for Iyanna's 7th birthday on Saturday. The child's classmates from William Paca/Old Post Elementary, along with Red Cross representatives and local businesses, surprised the child with an impromptu party, complete with cake and gifts including a bike, computer and TV.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the fire continues and the cause had yet to be determined yesterday, the state fire marshal said. Investigators have said they could find no sign of smoke detectors amid the charred debris, other than a single device still in its original packaging. But family members said their father traditionally outfitted the home with detectors.

"He loved that house and he protected it," Green said. "There were smoke detectors everywhere. He kept a bag of them under the steps, so he would have extras for us."

Shropshire was the only one on the first floor of the burning house. The first rescue workers on the scene pulled him from the back of the home and began to administer aid, but he died en route to the hospital.

"His hands were so severely burned that it indicates to me that he was trying to get to the children or put the fire out," said Jerome Jr. "His last words were `There are babies in the house.' My father died a hero."

The family members vow to help Shaunette carry on with her life and rebuild the home, if that is her desire. For now, however, it's hard for them to reconcile that the sight of so many cherished memories is reduced to charred rubble.

"One of the hardest things is, it's not blue anymore," Jerome Jr. said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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