City police and fire investigators say Molotov cocktails started two fires in Northeast Baltimore early Wednesday, one of which injured seven people at an apartment complex and displaced many more.
Police are still seeking a motive, but said they do not believe the victims were targeted or the incidents were hate crimes.
But because of the deadly potential of such attacks, patrols in the neighborhoods have been increased, police said, and the investigation has been made a priority.
The two incidents, which both involved bottles of flammable liquid being thrown through apartment windows, took place less than a mile apart. They occurred shortly before and after 4 a.m. at the Parkside Gardens Apartments in the 5000 block of Lodestone Way and at an apartment in the 4400 block of Bowleys Lane.
Seven people were injured, two critically, in the Lodestone attack, which officials said forced several people to jump from the top floor of the three-story building to escape the fire. Firefighters rescued several others. Residents of 12 apartments there have been displaced.
"There was so much smoke, no one could get down the stairway," said Chief Roman Clark, a fire department spokesman.
Two of the families who had to leave their homes are part of the 1,400-unit neighborhood's large Nepalese community, and lost everything in the blaze, including immigration documents, said Tika Dahal, a neighbor.
"They have nothing from their houses. They are in sorrow. They cannot speak now," Dahal said.
No injuries were reported in the Bowleys Lane attack, officials said, but the residents of the apartment that was attacked have also been displaced.
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference on the attacks, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the incidents could be the result of "juveniles playing a very dangerous prank," or could be "something more serious."
Deputy Fire Chief Raymond O'Brocki touched on the volatile and dangerous nature of Molotov cocktails and their capacity to "start a fire very quickly and have that fire spread very quickly."
O'Brocki also spoke to the city's history of violent firebombings, sometimes in targeted attacks of residents who had spoken out against crime.
He mentioned the family of Angela and Carnell Dawson, who were killed along with their five children in a firebombing of their East Baltimore home almost 10 years ago, after confronting drug dealers in their neighborhood.
"In my experience, I can tell you that this is a very dangerous arsonist," he said of Wednesday's attacks. "Anyone who would firebomb a house where they could reasonably believe that people were sleeping is dangerous, and they definitely had an intent to kill — to fire bomb at 10 of 4 in the morning."
The attack on the Dawson family focused national attention on the issue of witness intimidations in Baltimore, and re-enforced the violent infamy of Molotov cocktails in city attacks, which have occurred intermittently in years since.
Four victims from the attack on Lodestone Way were taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital and two are being treated at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The seventh victim, a 7-year-old boy, is at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. The child and one adult are in serious condition, Clark said. No firefighters were injured in the two-alarm blaze.
The building appears to have been totally destroyed, Clark said, but that determination will be made by the apartment's management, in conjunction with fire officials. All its units, four on each level, were occupied, officials said.
"At this point, residents will not be allowed back in the building," he said.
By Wednesday evening, the building had been boarded up. Nearby, a group of women and children gathered around Natalie Zajac, a teacher at Moravia Park Elementary School who was handing out clothing.
"They lost everything, so we need to get them help," Zajac said, noting children from the school who were among those displaced.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents the Northeast neighborhood, was also there to drop off bottled water. He plans to compile a list of other needs, he said, to pass along to community leaders who have asked how they can help.
"It's an unacceptable tragedy, stuff we don't stand for in our community," Scott said of the attack.
Guglielmi said police in the Northeast district will be working directly out of the neighborhood to gather community intelligence about what occurred. Two officers have been placed in the neighborhood for an "indefinite" stint, and the police department's arson unit is also on the ground there, working with fire investigators.