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Five dead in fire in Northeast Baltimore

Others injured after early morning two-alarm blaze in house

By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

7:52 PM EDT, October 11, 2012

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When 19-year-old Roderick Goodman woke up in a smoke-filled bedroom early Thursday, his first instinct was to get out of the brick rowhouse where he lived with his grandparents and several other relatives.

He jumped two stories to the ground in front of the Northeast Baltimore home and landed unhurt. But as flames shot from the first floor of the home in the city's Frankford neighborhood, he heard his aunt cry: "Help me, help me get my baby."

She threw the two-month-old from a second-floor window, into Goodman's arms. Then the young woman jumped to safety herself.

Goodman, Shade Worrell, 19, and her baby were among the survivors of a fire that left five people dead. Four children, aged 1 to 7 years, and their 55-year-old grandmother, Nancy Worrell, died when the fire tore through the rowhouse, an end unit of four attached homes. Wilson Worrell, 52, Nancy's husband, escaped but was seriously injured and taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital after jumping from the second story.

"I know I saved the baby, but I wanted to save my whole family," Goodman said later in the morning, as he stood near the ruined home.

According to Sharron Fenner, the victims included her grandson, James Holden Jr., 1, and her mother, Nancy Worrell, who had offered to babysit James overnight. Three other Worrell grandchildren: K'Niyah Scott, and Daryl Stewart, 4, who are the children of Shade Worrell, and Tykia Manley, 7, also died in the fire.

When city firefighters arrived, shortly after the first alarm and just after 2 a.m., heavy fire and smoke were coming from the first floor at 5601 Denwood Ave. and quickly extended to the second floor and attic, Fire Department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said.

"The fire was so intense that the front door was bent inward," he said. "It was so intense, I'm surprised anyone survived."

Neighbor Mike Matthews said he had watched as small flames poked out of the second-floor windows — and quickly grew.

"At that point, those flames were like an open pit fire," he said. "I thought something was wrong because I didn't see the grandmother and the kids."

Lakia Worrell, Tykia's mother, arrived on the scene as the home was smoldering. "I knew there was no hope," she said.

Harriett Williams, who lives about two blocks away, said the flames were so high, she thought an entire street was on fire. Sandra Royster ran from her home on Aberdeen Avenue and cut through yards, only to hear a young man shouting, "My grandmother is still in there and there are more babies."

Royster said, "It was just an inferno. It burnt so fast. I heard a boom and then, the whole upstairs was on fire."

Family members apparently were spread among the three bedrooms on the second floor, with many of the children in a rear room. The fire started in the rowhouse's basement, and spread upward, fire officials said. City Fire Chief James S. Clack said interviews with family members who escaped the fire and an initial investigation indicated the home had no working smoke detectors.

As firefighters began a search and rescue operation, two of them fell through the first floor into the basement.

"It's not like you see on TV, it's dark and hot, you can't see where you're going, you're moving by feel and trying to feel the floor in front of you to make sure it's there," Clack said. "And in this case, it was there but it was not solid and that's the most dangerous thing a firefighter does is crawl into a space that appears to be safe."

Both firefighters were transported to Bayview Burn Center with non-life-threatening injuries, Cartwright said.

Cartwright said all five victims were found on the second floor, in the back bedroom. The fire was officially under control at 3:47 a.m.

Later in the morning, neighbors and relatives mourned the victims, including the woman some called the "hip-hop grandma." Many wrapped tearful family members in strong embraces and prayed with them. Shade Worrell clutched a white blanket around her, even after a neighbor gave her a fleece jacket.

Barbara Hopkins, the great-grandmother of the children who died, believes Nancy Worrell died trying to protect them.

"Nancy would never leave those children — I know that in my heart," said Hopkins. Her son, Wilson Worrell, was badly burned and may have suffered a broken back in the fall, she said.

"They were a great, big family," said Dana Lane, a former neighbor. Wilson Worrell was a mechanic and volunteered to fix Lane's truck. Nancy Worrell, Lane said, was "lots of fun."

"Even the children who had moved away came back all the time," Lane said. "The house was really the family headquarters. And, everyone liked to sit on the front porch."

Neighbors said Nancy Worrell swept that porch every morning, and would shout greetings down the block to strangers or ask whether family members were well.

Fenner said her mother really nurtured all children.

"She would never let a child go hungry," Fenner said. "She would always feed them. Her doors were open. She was like the Bea Gaddy of this neighborhood. She never let you leave without saying, 'See you later' and 'I love you always.'"

Nancy and Wilson Worrell were married for 27 years and had 14 children. They had moved to the neighborhood about two years ago from a home in South Baltimore, Fenner said.

Of James she said, "We just had a birthday party for him last week. Now I am trying to make funeral arrangements."

Laverne Hawkins, a former neighbor, described Nancy Worrell as "full of life" and the primary care-giver of the grandchildren. " I know that she died trying to save those kids," she said.

Her husband, Roger, added, "I believe she kept the family together. I still can't believe it. It hurts the heart. The children were all so sweet."

Daryl and Tykia attended Moravia Park Elementary School, family members said. "Tykia was a bright child with a wonderful smile and the school and community will be lessened by her passing," said Jeremy Cotton-Schmidt, who taught Tykia in first grade last year.

Fire investigators and police arson detectives were on the scene throughout the morning. Fire Marshal Raymond O'Brocki III said that "while the cause of the fire is still under investigation, early indications don't give rise to any suspicions of arson."

When asked about the cause of the fire, Cartwright said, "Preliminarily nothing boldly stands out to us that was incendiary, but we are investigating everything." He added that it's not surprising some area residents suspect foul play, since there were two arson cases in the neighborhood recently.

City Councilman Brandon Scott went back and forth between the house and a nearby school, where many family members were gathered. He received a call at 3 a.m. about a fire involving children. He knew which house it was, he said, as soon as he learned the street. "There were always children playing there."

He said, "All I can do is ask the entire city to wrap their arms around this entire family."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made a condolence call to the school, too.

"We stand in support of the family as they try to pull through this tragedy," she said. "They shouldn't be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help."

Family members planned to set up a trust fund for supporters to donate to cover funeral costs.

In the rowhouse's backyard, a swing set sat under a large tree and several small ride-on toys remained, where children had left them. The back of the home was completely charred and the interior gutted. The large, single-pane window to the back bedroom — where five people died — was shut.

Goodman returned to the street mid-morning to ask firefighters if he could go back into the home. "I just wanted to see if there was anything left," said Goodman, who was dressed in a hooded sweat shirt and jeans, all the clothing he had.

But firefighters had already placed a large yellow sign at the entry: "emergency condemnation and demolition."

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance, Alison Knezevich, Kevin Rector and Erin Cox contributed to this article.

mhare@baltsun.com

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