Four people were killed in a rowhouse fire at 1624 E. Oliver St.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
On Thursday morning, Lionell Green watched construction vehicles pile debris from the fire that killed his grandmother, two cousins and his cousin's daughter in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood Wednesday night.
It was a familiar sight. In 1994, he was one of three survivors of a house fire in Southwest Baltimore that killed nine members of his family, seven of them children.
"Death just came right back around," he said.
Investigators were still working to determine the cause of the overnight blaze that led to the city's first fire fatalities of 2010, said Fire Department spokesman Capt. Roman Clark. One man, who was in the basement, was able to escape.
He identified the dead as Phyllis Rouzer, 65; her granddaughters, Ericka Morris, 24, and Dynisha Diggs, 14; and Morris' daughter, Tyrese Brown, 2.
The fire was reported at 11:10 p.m. and appeared to have started in the front of the first floor of the two-story brick rowhouse in the 1600 block of E. Oliver St. in the Oliver community, Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack said Thursday. The four victims were in upstairs bedrooms, he said.
The man who survived the blaze told relatives that he heard a smoke alarm go off. However, fire officials did not find evidence of smoke detectors in the house, Clark said.
Clark said firefighters arrived on the scene within three minutes. "Nothing hampered with attacking the fire here," Clark said. "Units were on the scene in good time."
Leo Pridget, who lives next door to the blaze, said he woke up when his smoke detectors went off.
"At first I thought I was dreaming, but it wasn't no dream," he said.
After checking his stove and furnace, Pridget said he saw smoke seeping into his home from next door through cracks in the floor and wall.
When he got outside, flames were shooting out the door and windows, he said.
As word of the fire spread Wednesday night, about 30 to 40 relatives of the victims gathered in the 1600 block of Oliver St., Green said.
The fire left streaks of soot above the windows and charred the home's interior, destroying a place where family would gather, Green said.
"This house was the meeting place," he said. "We all came together in love when we needed to."
He remembered the Bible his grandmother kept upstairs, marked with the family's milestones. "This was our archives here," Green said.
"She was a mother that tried to keep the family together," said Henriett Rouzer, 37, of her mother, Phyllis Rouzer. Henriett Rouzer survived the 1994 fire and was able to save one son, although three of her other children perished.
"Losing my mother and losing my nieces in the same way as I lost my kids ... it hurts," she said.
Rouzer said she helped her mother raise her 14-year-old niece, who would stop by her home before and after school at Friendship Academy. "My niece is like my daughter," she said. Her mother was also vigilant about their smoke detector, she said.
"She made it her business to get a smoke alarm," Rouzer said. Clark said a fire inspection in September noted three fire detectors in the house, and could not explain why there was no evidence of them after the fire.
Rouzer said her mother was a member of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and worked until her health deteriorated.
Clack said that firefighters did a great job, but smoke detectors could have made a difference.
"Help us help you," he said. Firefighters have installed hundreds of thousands of detectors within the last decade, the fire chief said, and have gone door to door to check and install detectors as well. Baltimore residents can call 410-396-7283 to request a smoke detector for their homes.
Clack also encouraged families to practice escape plans with their children.
A candle started the 1994 fire in a rowhouse at Hollins and Pulaski streets, according to officials at the time. They said there were no smoke detectors present in that home.
Back on Oliver Street, Green wasn't looking forward to what lay ahead. "This is the easy part, right now," he said, looking at the remains of his grandmother's house. The funerals would be much harder.
•Install dual-sensor smoke alarms, or both kinds of smoke alarms: ionization (which detect fast-burning fires) and photoelectric (which detect slow, smoldering fires) in bedrooms.
•Remember not to leave cooking food unattended and don't wear loose clothing when cooking.
•Keep flammable items like drapes at least 3 feet away from your heater.
•Avoid dressing children for sleep in loose-fitting, 100 percent cotton garments, such as oversized T-shirts.
•Never use the range or oven to heat your home.
Source: U.S. Fire Administration