Boy, 13, died in bid to save his brother

Blaze destroyed a family created by generosity as much as by blood

East Baltimore Fire

May 24, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl, Doug Donovan and Abigail Tucker | Stephen Kiehl, Doug Donovan and Abigail Tucker,Sun reporters

Davonte Witherspoon had made it out alive onto the Cecil Avenue sidewalk, free of the fire ravaging his brick-front rowhouse. That's when the 13-year- old boy, standing amid thick smoke and underneath flames that licked the morning sky, remembered who was still inside.

"My brother!" he said, according to a witness. "My nephew!"

Davonte had to go back in. Later this would not be surprising to anyone who knew the family. Davonte's brother, Tashon Thomas, 16, had muscular dystrophy and was in a wheelchair. The boys were devoted to each other. It was Davonte who carried Tashon up the stairs at night and Davonte who bathed him when their mother, Deneen Thomas, could not.

Also trapped inside the house Tuesday morning was Nijuan Thomas Jr., Davonte's 3-year-old nephew with whom he shared a bedroom in the front of the house. Davonte knew Tashon was there, too, and so he dashed back into the house through a rear door. No one could stop him.

"He went in that house to get his brother," said Inez Williams, who lives three doors away from 1903 Cecil Ave. She had witnessed the scene firsthand and recounted it yesterday. "He would not leave his brother."

Williams would not see Davonte again until firefighters carried his body from the smoldering home. Relatives said he was found on top of Tashon, perhaps trying to protect his brother from the flames that would take six lives, including five children. Fire officials could not confirm where, or in what condition, the brothers' bodies were found.

Yesterday investigators continued looking for the cause of the blaze on the city's east side. They have found no evidence that an accelerant was used to start the fire, said Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Rick Binetti.

A source close to the investigation said investigators were examining a couch in the front room of the first floor and considering the possibility that the fire might have been started on or near the couch by someone who was smoking.

A relative who left the house minutes before the fire began said that William C. Hyman, who was killed in the blaze, slept on that couch because he could not climb stairs. The other five victims have been identified by The Sun as:

Tashon Thomas, 16

Davonte Witherspoon, 13

Melvin Beckett, 13

Marquis Ellis, 7

Nijuan Thomas Jr., 3

Tashon and Davonte were especially close. At age 7, Tashon was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. But he still had use of his hands, and he tinkered for hours with computers and radios and anything mechanical. Davonte loved to ride his bike and wanted to play professional baseball.

Both boys attended Lombard Middle School. Yesterday, the school sent a letter home to parents lamenting, "Two of our students are believed to have perished in a terrible fire."

Seven others were injured in the fire. Deneen Thomas, 43, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, remained in critical condition; Oneika Ellis, 27, the mother of Marquis Ellis, was in good condition; and Amira Williams, 3, the granddaughter of Deneen Thomas, was in critical condition.

In many ways, the 13 people who found themselves inside the house Tuesday were a portrait of urban poverty in America: four generations under one roof, a foster child in search of a home, an ex-boyfriend who had nowhere else to go.

Some had criminal records. Some had endured violence. Several had health problems. But they all found a home with Deneen Thomas, who everyone called Miss Nina. She was well-known for offering shelter to people outside her own family. No one was a stranger to her.

At the barbecues she frequently hosted in her yard, "she cooked for the block," said her mother, 64-year-old Carol Howell. Miss Nina's kitchen pans were practically the size of table tops.

The family gathered yesterday at a house on Oak Hill Avenue, a block from the site of the fire. They spent the day planning for the burials - choosing obituary pictures, selecting casket colors, mapping out bus routes to the funeral home. With several families and the whole neighborhood affected, there were many decisions to make.

But 27-year-old Tiffany Howard was sure about one thing: She wanted the six people who died in her Aunt Nina's house to be buried together as a family, because that was how they lived.

"I want to do it all at once, because of the closeness of these family and friends," she said. "They weren't all related, but that is how they would have wanted it done."

Deneen Thomas had four children. Three lived with her - Davonte, Tashon and Chriseria Thomas, 20 - and one other son is in prison. That son, Nijuan Thomas, is the father of Nijuan Jr., who died in the fire. Deneen had been taking care of him.

She extended herself to others as well. Melvin Beckett, 13, was no relation to the family at all. Still, the tall, slim foster child came over to Miss Nina's to play video games with his best friend Davonte practically every chance he got, sometimes staying for long stretches, relatives said.

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