Their children in bed, the chores done, Amber Way and Michelle Manigo met on adjoining front porches to chat about their kids and exchange gossip making the rounds on South Pulaski Street. They parted just before 1 a.m., retiring to their neighboring rowhouses.
Less than 30 minutes later, half of the Southwest Baltimore block was in flames.
Way and her boyfriend rushed their daughters out the back door and into the street. There they saw neighbors who had also fled their homes. Manigo, seven months pregnant, and her two children weren't among them.
Way knew something was wrong. "They would've been right beside me," she said.
The 33-year-old and her sons, Tyquis Moore, 11, and Jaquis Manigo, 7, died in the fire that officials believe started in their house, 629 South Pulaski St. The fire then jumped from porch to porch, spreading up and down the block, leaving seven dwellings burned out and condemned and three others badly damaged.
Investigators had not determined a cause or source of the fire by Thursday evening, a spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department said. They weren't sure if the rental property had smoke detectors, saying none were apparent but that they could have melted.
Hours after the fire, the street still cordoned off as firefighters doused the last embers smoldering on rooftops, relatives of Manigo and her husband, who escaped the fire, gathered around the corner.
The relatives sat on rowhouse steps, their heads buried in their hands. Others cried and held onto each other. None wanted to talk to reporters. But neighbors said they saw Manigo's husband, whose name was not given by officials, run down the street shouting "Where my babies at" as the fire spread.
All day Thursday, people who live in the Carrollton Ridge community said they were stunned, first at the speed of the fire, then at the heroic acts their neighbors performed. One fought his way past fire to alert an elderly couple. Another raced back inside his burning home for his child.
By afternoon, the firefighters were gone, replaced by city work crews maneuvering small bulldozers, scooping the rubble — blackened bedposts, charred picture frames, burned dolls — and piling it all into giant trash bins.
Tom Hubbard, who has lived in his house at 633 Pulaski St. for 45 of his 68 years, sat on the living room sofa, indifferent to the red "condemned" notice tacked to a porch railing. He ignored the rug soaked with water sprayed from fire hoses and watched his sons remove his damaged belongings.
"I've seen plenty of house fires in my time," said Hubbard, who was up watching a public television show on prostate cancer when he first smelled smoke. "But I've never seen anything like this."
Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman, said that several houses were ablaze when the first of nearly 100 firefighters arrived about 1:30 a.m. He said neighbors reported a possible fourth victim, and officials brought in a dog to search through debris, but no one was found.
The deaths bring the number of people killed in city fires this year to nine. Last year, 20 people died in fires in Baltimore, including six people from three generations of the same family who perished in a single fire in December on Homewood Avenue.
In Thursday's fire, nearly two dozen people were displaced and two firefighters suffered minor injuries.
City and state property tax records show the house where the fire started is owned by Gladys Onojobi. She could not be reached for comment. Records show she purchased the house in 2006 for $72,100. It is assessed at $15,000.
Records with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City show that inspectors issued a violation notice two days ago, Sept. 20, ordering the owner to repair a defective water pipe, bathtub and porch. Details were not available. A spokeswoman for the housing agency, Tania Baker, said the owner corrected another complaint in August — a defective door, ceiling and electrical fixtures.
Carrollton Ridge is a tight neighborhood beset by crime, though few homicides have occurred there in recent months. Two years ago, 5-year-old Raven Wyatt was struck in the head by a stray bullet, on Pulaski Street, three blocks from the fire.
The shooting reignited a debate about crime in the city and spurred efforts by a community group, the mayor and others to rid the streets of trash and tackle crime. Police held two community walks in the weeks after the shooting, complaining after one that few people who lived there joined in the show of force.
On Thursday, neighbors described Manigo as a community bright spot.
"She was the babysitter of the block," said Albert Roberts, 22. "Everyone loved the family."
Children from all over the neighborhood turned the 600 block of South Pulaski St., near Wilkens Avenue and South Monroe Street, into their playground, taking advantage of the dead-end street that drew little traffic.
Manigo, a stay-at-home mother, kept vigil from her porch, watching the children play. Her own sons were avid baseball and football players, alternating between batting a ball around on the street and retreating to a nearby vacant lot to play more organized games.
Roberts said he played with Tyquis and Jaquis every day, including Thursday. He said they attended private school.
Almost everyone affected by the fire told a similar story: They heard a noise or saw something flash, then saw flames. "The fire just exploded," said Roberts, who helped two elderly residents escape from their home before the heat and smoke kept him back.
Said Way: "We saw smoke and flames and went running. I have no idea how it happened. It just happened so fast."
As Way grabbed her daughter Breanna, her boyfriend, Dominique Payton, 23, raced upstairs from watching television to get their youngest, Bailey. "By the time I got back downstairs, my porch was on fire," Payton said. "I ran out the back just as it collapsed. It was scary."
Chelsea Martin, 21, who lives a few houses away from where the fire started, said a neighbor burst in and woke her up, helping to get her and her 3-year-old daughter, Mariah, to safety. "When I got out of the house, all I saw was a wall of flames and everything collapsing."
Chelsea Milligan, 20, who lives at 623 South Pulaski, stood near a police line anxious to get back to her house and assess the damage. She said firefighters found one of her cats but two were still missing. She was preparing to go to bed when a window cracked and she noticed the fire. She and five other occupants, ranging in age from 11 to 62, escaped unharmed.
She said it appeared that the damage to her house was confined to her porch and roof, though smoke and water covered the inside. "We might be able to salvage something," she said. "But I'm not so sure about my neighbors. They lost everything."
Milligan said the fire moved fast. "By the time we got to the front door, the fire was everywhere," she said. "We ran from the house just in time."