Tragedy on Cecil Avenue

May 23, 2007

Antonio Johnson turned back toward the burning rowhouse yesterday morning, but the flames were too big. He saw people hanging out windows, but most unforgettably, he heard their cries: Help me, help me. And later, someone told him that children who lived in the East Baltimore home didn't make it.

"I hope it's not true," he said, voicing what almost anyone would have wished as Baltimore firefighters finished their grim work and reported their tragic findings.

At the end of the day, six people - including three children - died in the fire at the small, brick rowhouse at 1903 Cecil Ave., the worst fatal fire since Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children perished in their East Baltimore home in late 2002. The Dawsons died as a result of a fire that was deliberately set in retaliation for the family's anti-drug work.

Fire investigators have found no evidence that yesterday's blaze was set, but the number of people who died in that Cecil Avenue rowhouse is what resonates - not just with the victims' family, friends and neighbors, but with an entire city that mourns such senseless loss.

Numerous calls to the Fire Department reported the blaze, which was put out within eight minutes of firefighters' arrival on the scene. But as many as 13 people reportedly lived in the house. And fire officials could find no evidence of smoke alarms, another factor that may have contributed to the death toll.

There are several other questions that require answers, about the house and the circumstances of who lived there.

But today, there are seven residents of the fire-gutted home who were hospitalized with severe burns and injuries. There are family members and friends grieving for the loss of loved ones.

And there are still others, such as Mr. Johnson, who won't forget what they saw on Cecil Avenue as they headed off to work on a sunny morning in May.

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