Woman, 84, killed in fire at rowhouse in E. Baltimore

Mary Hines spent three decades in the city school system, first as a teacher, then as a principal. Even after she retired in 1981, she didn't stop instructing others, spending her final years heading up adult Bible study classes at her church.

"She had a passion for education," said the Rev. Albert L. Davis Sr., her minister at Eastern United Methodist Church in East Baltimore.

Hines, 84, died Thursday morning in the rowhouse she had lived in much of her life when a fire swept through the front rooms. Her smoke alarms went off, but she moved slowly with a cane, and a neighbor who heard the alarms didn't recognize the source of the noise. The house had no electricity, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman said.

Now residents of the 2600 block of E. Biddle St. in the Berea neighborhood are mourning the loss of a woman who was a fixture there for decades. Despite her advanced age and frail health, "Miss Mary," as she was affectionately known, sat outside every day and invited visitors to chat.

"She was a great lady," said Butch West, 63, who lives across the street. "She sat on her steps and didn't bother anybody. The kids she taught would always come up to see her."

City school officials said Hines began teaching in September 1948 and retired in 1981 as principal of William Pinderhughes Elementary in West Baltimore. Davis said that everywhere Hines went, former students recognized her and approached.

Hers was the most popular Bible study class at the church, her minister said, and she had only just started training another parishioner to take over.

"She loved this church, and she loved the Lord," Davis said. "And she believed in education. If you were in Miss Hines' class, she made sure you did your homework and had your Bible lessons together." But most of all, Davis said, "she loved the kids of Baltimore City."

Hines' death was the city's first fire fatality of 2012. Last year, 17 people lost their lives in Baltimore fires, the fewest since the Fire Department started keeping records in 1938. The highest number of fatalities was 88 in 1984. Fire officials said 20 people died in fires in 2010 and 25 in 2009.

Thursday's fire was reported at 9:13 a.m., and firefighters had it extinguished within 30 minutes. Hines' body was found on the first floor, between the front and middle rooms. A cause of death has not been determined.

Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE, said she could not say whether power to the house had been shut off for nonpayment or for some other reason. Foy said she could not say when the house lost its power, citing privacy reasons.

Baltimore Fire Capt. Roman Clark, a department spokesman, said investigators do not know whether the lack of power was a factor in the fire. Housing and tax records show that Hines and her late husband, Thomas, had once owned the two-story rowhouse. But the documents show it was sold as part of a bankruptcy 15 years ago and that she was renting it from the new owner.

Neither the owner nor a property manager returned calls seeking comment.

Neighbors and friends said they had no idea that Hines might have been in financial trouble, and didn't know how the former principal could have ended up in a house without basic services.

Wanda Johnson lived next door for years and attended church with Hines. She said she heard a strange noise starting about 9 a.m.

"There was this beeping," Johnson said. She tried to hunt down the source of the sound, thinking it was in her house, until someone knocked on her door and told her that her neighbor's house was on fire.

Rebecca Pugh watched the rowhouse burn from across the street. "I was just praying she wasn't in there," she said.

Neighbors who said they talked with Hines nearly every day could provide only scant details of her life. They knew she had trouble walking but said she went to church every Sunday, picked up in a church van, and that friends took her shopping and to the doctor's office. She lived alone and had no children.

Fire officials said they couldn't find relatives and didn't confirm her identity until Thursday afternoon, after a nephew who heard about the fire showed up at the scene.

Davis, the minister, said that Hines "taught kids all over Baltimore City, and wherever she went, she would be called out by somebody she had taught. She was known all over, and everybody loved Miss Hines. She didn't have a family, but she had us."