Neighborhood copes with a stunning loss

Notes left at burned-out rowhouse express grief

East Baltimore Fire

May 24, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

The deep burgundy brick shows through the violent black char at 1903 Cecil Ave. The random contents of the East Baltimore rowhouse - an old 45 record, a tiny sneaker, a "Hugs" juice container - lie dormant on the sidewalk.

Scarred. Empty. Destroyed.

The whole block feels it.

"You can take the heart and soul out of this house, but their memories still remain," say the words written in cornflower blue marker on a white posterboard hanging from the front door.

Relatives, friends, strangers - they all came yesterday in equal measure to write a note, say a prayer, leave a stuffed animal outside this home where six people died and seven people were badly hurt Tuesday in a vicious early-morning fire that no one in this tight-knit block will soon forget.

"Cecil loves y'all," reads another note, near photos of a young victim. Stuffed bunnies and bears were tied to a tree with masking tape.

At 1917 Cecil yesterday, Shanee Matthews got dressed for her job at Shoe City, but before she could get there, she was in tears and waiting for her grandmother to fetch her.

G'Nae Johnson, 11, skipped school at Cecil Elementary. She couldn't eat.

Her friend Carena Smith, 12, wasn't in her sixth-grade class at Lombard Middle School. They sat on a stoop at 1907 Cecil, hugging their knees, remembering their friends and neighbors.

"It was just so much on my mind," Carena Smith sighs.

The girls exchanged stories. That seemed to help.

"Mink died a hero," Johnson says of 13-year-old Davante Witherspoon. "He did get out, but he ran back in for his brother."

No school for Devin Thompson, 9, either. "Fats," a second-grader at Cecil, has been "sad ever since," says his godmother, Latanya Lewis, as she sets out three stuffed animals. "These are all my friends," she says.

Thompson says he rode bikes with Mink.

"He got a lot of questions. How'd it happen? Why'd it happen? All that," Lewis says.

At 1901 Cecil, Gloria Reed-Brown, 58, helped her mother pack up her things yesterday. Smoke damage and a collapsed second-floor bedroom ceiling have made the home unlivable. Luckily, she wasn't hurt.

"This house has been in our family for 67 years," Reed-Brown says. "It's hard. I don't want to go any further. Too many memories. A lot of things have been shattered. You don't want to think about the bad things."

The Rev. Jennie Wise-Roy stood on the steps of 1908 Cecil yesterday, ready for a trip to the grocery store.

"I just looked out the window and saw the fire just coming," Wise-Roy, 75, says. "It was unbelievable. Hallelujah. Shook me up a little bit."

Carrie James, 59, from Woodlawn was on her way to work when she stopped in the neighborhood. "You got a family here," she told Tiffany Howard, 27.

The words are stirring, blaring from an upstairs CD player at 1917 Cecil. A gospel song. Something about needing strength. On this day it resonates.

"My hopes and dreams are fading fast," Tracey Matthews sings along.

Len Sippel, 66, delivers his letters. Ten years he has been a mail carrier. Four years on Cecil Avenue.

"It's a lot of sadness," Sippel, of Harford County, says. "There's a lot of good people down here. Everybody can't do enough for you, always ask if you need a drink."

A man in a tan trench coat slips notices in everybody's doors. "If you're reading this, there's still time," the sheet of paper reads, advertising insurance policies.

Walter Paige sits on a brown folding chair outside 1919. He has lived there 13 years. He has a fuzzy purple hat on his head and drinks from a plastic cup filled with orange soda.

Soon there's a helicopter flying overhead. A block away, at Homewood and North Avenues, there is a shooting.

"It's terrible," says Lisa Williams, 48. "It don't make no sense. It's sad. They just had a shooting around here the other day at 21st and Barclay. And that fire that killed all those people. They need to shut these streets down."

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