`No one should ... die that way'

Hundreds pack church to mourn 6 killed in city fire

7 are injured as flames rip rowhouse

Deadly Blaze

East Baltimore Fire

May 23, 2007|By Nicole Fuller and Gus G. Sentementes | Nicole Fuller and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN REPORTERS

In a chaotic few minutes, six lives were gone.

Five never got out, one died at a hospital. Seven others were badly hurt - some clinging to life last night - in one of the deadliest fires in Baltimore's history.

The tragedy unfolded yesterday morning on the city's east side, near Green Mount Cemetery, in a rented rowhouse packed with an extended family that the owner had tried to evict a month ago.

There were a mother and a child who used a wheelchair, relatives and cousins, maybe friends. Several people jumped from second-floor windows to escape the fire on Cecil Avenue. Fire officials said the bodies were burned beyond recognition and identifying them would be difficult.

"The scene inside that house is something no one should have to see," Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said. "And no one should have to die that way."

Last night, hundreds of mourners - friends, neighbors, strangers - packed the Ark Church on North Avenue to grieve for the lost. The Rev. James L. Carter read from the Bible, "The thing I fear the most has come upon us."

He told those gathered: "One side of me is angry, upset and feeling forsaken. Why would God allow this to happen?"

When asked how she is coping, Caroll Howell, the mother of Deneen Thomas, who lived in the house and was burned over half her body, said, "We are not. We are trying."

The first 911 call came in at 7:21 a.m. and was followed in rapid succession by nine more. Firefighters arrived at 1903 Cecil Ave. three minutes later and quickly struck a second alarm, which brought a total of 60 firefighters to the scene.

While some firefighters rushed through the front door with hoses, others hauled ladders through a narrow alley and climbed to a second-floor window to reach the trapped occupants. Paramedics treated several who had jumped to escape the intense heat and thick smoke.

Neighbors streamed from their homes to watch the rescue efforts, crowding a block lined with empty and boarded rowhouses in the neighborhood known as East Baltimore-Midway, a community that has long struggled with drugs and violence.

The fire was quickly brought under control. Investigators had not determined a cause yesterday, but police said no accelerants were found in the debris. Fire officials said a preliminary investigation indicates the fire began on the first floor of the two-story house and ripped through the home within minutes, spreading to an adjacent vacant rowhouse and another where a woman lives with her grandson.

The house that burned appeared to lack working smoke detectors, Goodwin said.

Chief Kevin P. Cartwright, a fire department spokesman, said that officials were trying to identify the dead yesterday and that dental records would most likely have to be used.

A 5-year-old boy who was rushed to Johns Hopkins Hospital died there. The rest of the dead were found inside the charred wreckage of the home - four in a second-floor bedroom in the front of the house, another on the ground floor near the stairwell.

Howell identified four of the dead as William Hyman and Tayshawn Thomas, 16, who used a wheelchair; Davontae Witherspoon, 13; and Nijuan Thomas Jr., 3 and her great-grandson. The pastor of Ark Church read the names of the dead and injured at last night's vigil and provided The Sun with his hand-written list.

The ages the pastor listed did not match a list of surviving victims the fire department provided.

Fire officials gave this account of the injured, though conditions and injuries were not available for each victim:

Being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital were a 3-year-old girl suffering from burns and a 27-year-old man in critical condition.

Taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center was a 4-year-old girl who fire officials said jumped from the house, a 20-year-old woman with second-degree burns on her arms, a 27-year-old woman listed in critical condition suffering from smoke inhalation and a 30-year-old man who suffered smoke inhalation.

Also being treated at Bayview was Thomas, 43, who family members described as the matriarch of the household. Fire officials said she was in critical condition, suffering from second- and third-degree burns to 60 percent of her body. Witnesses described seeing Thomas, also known as "Miss Nina," jump from a second-floor window in the front of the house to escape the fire.

Witnesses described a horrifying scene.

"I just heard somebody screaming and I looked up and I seen people jump out the window," said Mott Moore, 71, who said he saw three people jump from the rear of the home. "The fire was so fast. It didn't take long. It didn't take long before it was really blasting out. It didn't take no time for it to really go up."

Moore ran to the front of the burning structure and saw a woman on the ground - who witnesses said had jumped out a window.

"She was screaming, `Help me! Help me! Help me!'" Moore said, adding that paramedics were working to save a man lying on a stretcher.

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