"Everybody would look out for him," said Edward Kolakowski, 64, a longtime Canton resident and bar patron, explaining that Ptak rarely spoke of his past. "He wasn't a beggar. He never asked anybody for anything."

Ptak sought help from Healthcare for the Homeless in February and April of 2008. "We had no contact with him after that," spokesman Kevin Lindamood said.

But Ptak was known in the Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods where he spent his time. Residents remembered him as the unkempt but friendly man who lived outside the Canton Safeway.

"He stood out," said Dennis Trencher, a longtime Federal Hill resident who shopped at the store. "He almost looked ashamed — there was a sadness to him. I wanted to help but I couldn't. What can you do?"

On Dec. 15, Christianna McCausland, a freelance writer who lives in Canton, was walking home when she passed a side entrance and saw flames among a pile of blankets. "I saw that there was smoke and fire," she said. "I had a sinking feeling it was a person."

She and another man called 911 and tried to extinguish the flames, at one point taking a case of water from the store to dump on him. The people trying to help the man repeatedly asked, "What is your name?" He answered, "Stosh."

The man muttered something, "then he completely stopped," McCausland said. "This poor man, he didn't even look like a person."

Police came and told her she could leave, so she walked by St. Casimir's Church and burst into tears. "I still think about it," she said. "You don't forget about what a person on fire smells like."

Fire and police officials said Ptak suffered burns to more than 60 percent of his body. Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said Ptak burned himself while trying to light a cigarette. He died two days later at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

A social worker at the hospital learned his name, though a spokeswoman wouldn't say precisely how, citing patient confidentiality rules. Ptak's body was sent to the anatomy board four days after Christmas, and cremated a month later.

His remains are there today, in a building on West Baltimore Street, destined for the grave at Sykesville.



  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts