Rescuer describes his efforts in Hampden blaze

Woman dies of injuries

her daughter remains in serious condition

August 10, 2010|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

Robert Hall could only think of saving his grandmother's friends and neighbors when he tried to race past the flames and smoke that were quickly consuming their Hampden rowhouse Monday morning.

He was able to get Betty Lou Shipe, 82, out of the house by flinging open the front door, which she was struggling to unlock, but she died Tuesday of injuries suffered in the blaze.

"I had to run into the fire," Hall said. "I grabbed her and ran back out."

Shipe died at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday at Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, according to Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright. Shipe's daughter, Anita "Dee" Keller, remained in serious condition at Union Memorial Hospital.

The cause of the fire at 3316 Elm Ave. is under investigation, according to fire officials, who said the home sustained $6,000 worth of damage.

A mixture of soot, glass and burnt wood covered the sidewalk in front of the rowhouse Tuesday with the victims' possessions lying nearby — stray toys, Pictionary cards, Avon products and Christmas decorations among them. The blaze destroyed what was once the living room.

Neighbors, several of whom were gathered in front of their homes Tuesday afternoon, still discussing the fire, described their block as close-knit. Some residents had known Dee Keller and her husband, Roland, for more than a decade.

Hall had passed by the house moments before he noticed the blaze with his grandmother, Virginia Carsten, as they returned from registering his daughter in preschool at Hampden Elementary School. Nothing seemed amiss, Carsten said, and the two joined other family members on Carsten's front porch.

"There was no nothing — no smoke, no fire, no nothing," Carsten said. "Then he said, 'Grandma, Dee's porch is on fire!'"

Carsten and Hall raced down the street with his mother, Debbie Callahan, yelling and screaming. The front door was locked, so Hall went around to the back, but couldn't get to the door. He was trying to reach a window when his mother shouted to him that Shipe was standing at the front door, purse on her arm, struggling to get out. Hall ran back around the house, he said, where the entire front door finally came off its hinges as he yanked it open.

Carsten recalled the horror of seeing Shipe as the flames surrounded her.

"I was watching this woman burn right in front of me. I couldn't sleep last night because I kept seeing her," she said.

Juanita Stahl, whose house was also damaged in the blaze, recalled that her father used to take Shipe and Keller to medical appointments because they didn't drive. "When Dad passed away [last year], they were right there making dinners for us," she said.

After the fire, neighbors donated money to Roland Keller and offered him and the Stahls spare bedrooms. Another neighbor took in one of his cats that survived the fire. Angelo's Carry Out sent over sandwiches.

The neighbors were dismayed Tuesday to discover that both houses had been burglarized overnight.

Stahl said thieves took jewelry from both homes, ripped birth certificates apart and broke into safes. It only deepened the pain of those still reeling from the blaze.

"You can buy it again," Stahl said.

"But you can't replace the memory," added Carsten. She called Keller her "best friend."

Keller's husband, Roland, said he was "in shock" over the death of his mother-in-law, his wife's injuries — he said her chances are "50-50" — and the damage to his childhood home. He and his wife had lived there for 17 years, he said, and his mother-in-law moved in about nine years ago.

A teenage girl and boy approached him Tuesday to offer comforting hugs and words.

"How's Miss Dee?" asked the girl. When he replied that his wife might not make it, she gave him a hug and said, "Love you, Mr. Roland," while her friend encouraged him to "keep his chin up."

Juanita Stahl's family escaped unharmed from the blaze, having been awakened by a neighbor banging on the door.

Hall suffered minor burns and lacerations. His grandmother said people are calling him the "Hampden hero."

Cartwright also praised Hall for his "courageous actions" though he advised others to be cautious when facing similar situations.

"Under the adverse conditions, we certainly commend Mr. Hall for his exemplary actions," Cartwright said. "Not a lot of people would have taken the initiative to do that when you consider the intense flames, heat and heavy smoke conditions."

Hall, who said he wants to become a firefighter, shook off the praise.

"It's not the smartest decision I've ever made," he said. "But other people said it might've been the bravest."

rlhill@baltsun.com

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