Neighbors mourn the lives lost in fire

May 23, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

A big question nagged at the neighbors and onlookers who stared at the charred rowhouse at 1903 Cecil Ave. yesterday morning: Why had so many people been crammed into such a small place?

Just a few hours earlier, a fast-moving blaze turned the house into an inferno, killing six people - including several children - and sending seven others to hospitals. Thirteen was the official figure given by the city Fire Department for the number killed or injured. But neighborhood residents said it was hard to keep track of all the people who lived in the house. Some said they counted 14 and others said 15. And, everybody said, there were too many people for a house that size.

"I know it was a lot of them in there," Joyce Somerville said. "Children, babies, everybody. They were living in the basement and everywhere."

Somerville is familiar with the 1900 block of Cecil Ave. because her 90-year-old aunt, Ruby Johnson, lives there. Firefighters evacuated Johnson from her home to protect her from the smoky fire two doors away. Somerville went to the neighborhood to check on her aunt after receiving phone calls from Johnson's neighbors.

When are there too many people living in a house? I'm hardly one to judge: when I was a boy, there were 11 of us living in a three-story house in the 500 block of N. Schroeder St. If a fire had engulfed the first floor - where none of us slept - it would have surely resulted in a body count similar to the one yesterday.

But those were only temporary living arrangements. My mother moved her brood of six kids out as soon as it was financially feasible. Are there still people so poor they have to live 13, 14 or 15 to a house?

Apparently.

A woman, who declined to give her full name, said she saw a lot of "traffic" going in and out of the house. She said her granddaughter saw the flames about 7 a.m. and told her the house on Cecil Avenue was burning. She said she looked out of the rear window of her house on Kennedy Avenue, one block east of Cecil, and saw smoke and flames coming out of the rear bedroom window.

"It was thick and black," she said of the smoke. As she sat on front steps several doors up from the fire scene, she and others tried to get a count on the number of people paramedics carried away.

The woman and other neighborhood residents said they saw gruesome things. They spoke of one fire victim, a woman, who was said to have leaped from a second-story window and struck her head on the curb. They spoke of a male victim who was burned so badly paramedics had to wrap his body before placing him in an ambulance.

They talked about bodies that had yet to be removed from the house. Who were they and how many were there? they asked.

The woman who did not want to be named and her granddaughter went around the corner on 20th Street to the alley that separates Kennedy and Cecil avenues and tried to get a view.

Others stood on the back porch of a vacant house at the corner of Kennedy and North avenues and craned their necks trying to get a look at the scene, but their line of sight was partially blocked by several trees.

Tawana Johnson, who lives in the 1900 block of Cecil Ave., spoke of the rumors going around the neighborhood: that two of the dead were brothers, one a 4-year-old boy in a wheelchair who needed oxygen, and an 11-year-old who died trying to save him.

"That's what they say," Johnson said, "but there's so many stories going around."

Probably as many stories as there were people living at 1903 Cecil Ave.

Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin showed up and cautioned people about listening to such stories. The bodies in the house were so badly burned, he said, that firefighters weren't able to determine gender or age.

Firefighters couldn't immediately identify the dead, but some people knew who they were. Such as the woman who sobbed openly and loudly as she stood in front of Cecil Elementary School, around the corner from the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center.

In happier, more normal times, Cecil-Kirk is the rec center that has produced some of the finest basketball talent Baltimore has ever seen. But yesterday, it served as the meeting place for relatives, friends and neighbors of the dead and injured.

At about noon, a bald man clad in a white jacket, red T-shirt and black pants stood at the corner of North and Cecil avenues looking at the burned-out house. "NO! Why them?" he said before walking away on North Avenue.

Ronald Williams saw the man and recognized him as an old friend. Williams said he was riding the No. 36 bus on his way to work when he saw the man. Williams got off the bus to console his friend, who knew victims of the blaze.

When Goodwin gave a news briefing, Williams tried to question the fire chief, but the cops shooed him away. For Williams, the issue was about saving lives, not how many people lived in the house.

"I think sprinklers in these old homes would do a lot of good," Williams said, which is the point he was trying to make to Goodwin. Williams said he grew up in the neighborhood, the 1800 block of Ashland Ave., to be exact.

"These houses are old," Williams said. "None of them have fire escapes in the back. If sprinklers had been in the house, we could have had survivors, not casualties."

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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