3 children killed in Cecil Co. townhouse fire

  • This resident was displaced after a fire in Cecil Co. that killed three children.
This resident was displaced after a fire in Cecil Co. that killed… (AP photo )
May 15, 2010|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

NORTH EAST - — A fire early Saturday in this Cecil County community killed three children younger than 10 and left their mother injured, officials said.

Jewel Johnson, 29, climbed from a second-story window onto the roof of a bay window to escape flames that erupted from her rented townhouse, said Bruce Bouch, a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office, which is investigating the blaze.

Rescuers pulled Johnson to safety after she made her way to a neighboring home, but three children were found dead inside the bedrooms of the house, Bouch said. Johnson had four children. Her eldest child, a 10-year-old boy, had been staying with a grandparent in Pennsylvania, officials said. The names and exact ages of the children will not be released until a review by the state medical examiner's office is completed, Bouch said.

As rescue crews arrived at the fire, reported at 3:27 a.m., Johnson "was screaming 'my babies, my babies,' " said Maria Lagdameo, a neighbor in the townhouse development on Cedar Hill Circle.

Johnson was taken to the burn center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where she was in critical but stable condition and being treated for burns on 17 percent of her body and smoke inhalation, Bouch said.

Johnson and her children lived in one of the middle homes of a seven-unit row of townhouses. The two homes on either side were damaged by fire, and crews covered windows with plywood. All seven units were evacuated Saturday after crews shut off electricity to assess damage and complete their investigation, officials said.

Bouch said the fire began in the first-floor living room and took about 2 1/2 hours to bring under control. The cause was under investigation, he said. The complex, built in 1974, is not equipped with sprinklers, he said. While the units have smoke detectors, fire crews could not determine if the alarms were sounding, he said. Damage was estimated at $350,000, Bouch said.

Friends and neighbors had piled about a dozen stuffed animals at the home by Saturday afternoon, including a blue shark with a tag reading "Love Sammon, Jah'lere, LL'neek."

A neighbor, Sarah Lomas, 8, used chalk to write "In memory of Shana and Tucker" on the sidewalk in front of her own house. She said she would have written the name of the third child, Aiden, but ran out of chalk. Sarah said she attends the same schools as the victims, North East Elementary, and rode the bus with them.

Sarah's mother, Michelle Brown, said the two girls liked to dance to Justin Bieber and ride their bikes. "I always saw [Shana] on her bike. Her mother always drove the kids up to the bus stop every day."

The complex had been undergoing renovations, including the installation of new windows. The blaze destroyed much of the work, leaving green siding curled.

"It's scary to think these houses can go up that fast," said David Greenleaf, a resident of Cedar Hill Circle, who described the fire as a "tornado" of flames.

Neighbors said a school counselor visited the complex on Saturday. Lagdameo said one of her three children, a 5-year-old girl, was a playmate of one of Johnson's children.

She described waiting for firefighters to arrive: "You know how one second seems like two hours?"

As she was watching, "I told myself they're not going to make it. When the firemen got there, they yelled, 'Where are the kids?' The woman replied, 'One is in the front and two are in the back.' "

Greenleaf lives in the complex with a daughter and two stepchildren. His 8-year-old stepson, Noah, played with one of the three victims, he said. When Noah learned about the tragedy, the boy burst into tears, Greenleaf said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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