By Stephen Kiehl and Doug Donovan and Abigail Tucker
Davonte Witherspoon had made it out alive onto the Cecil Avenue sidewalk, free of the fire ravaging his brick-front rowhouse. That's when the 13-year- old boy, standing amid thick smoke and underneath flames that licked the morning sky, remembered who was still inside.
"My brother!" he said, according to a witness. "My nephew!"
Davonte had to go back in. Later this would not be surprising to anyone who knew the family. Davonte's brother, Tashon Thomas, 16, had muscular dystrophy and was in a wheelchair. The boys were devoted to each other. It was Davonte who carried Tashon up the stairs at night and Davonte who bathed him when their mother, Deneen Thomas, could not.
Also trapped inside the house Tuesday morning was Nijuan Thomas Jr., Davonte's 3-year-old nephew with whom he shared a bedroom in the front of the house. Davonte knew Tashon was there, too, and so he dashed back into the house through a rear door. No one could stop him.
"He went in that house to get his brother," said Inez Williams, who lives three doors away from 1903 Cecil Ave. She had witnessed the scene firsthand and recounted it yesterday. "He would not leave his brother."
Williams would not see Davonte again until firefighters carried his body from the smoldering home. Relatives said he was found on top of Tashon, perhaps trying to protect his brother from the flames that would take six lives, including five children. Fire officials could not confirm where, or in what condition, the brothers' bodies were found.
Yesterday investigators continued looking for the cause of the blaze on the city's east side. They have found no evidence that an accelerant was used to start the fire, said Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Rick Binetti.
A source close to the investigation said investigators were examining a couch in the front room of the first floor and considering the possibility that the fire might have been started on or near the couch by someone who was smoking.
A relative who left the house minutes before the fire began said that William C. Hyman, who was killed in the blaze, slept on that couch because he could not climb stairs. The other five victims have been identified by The Sun as:
• Tashon Thomas, 16
• Davonte Witherspoon, 13
• Melvin Beckett, 13
• Marquis Ellis, 7
• Nijuan Thomas Jr., 3
Tashon and Davonte were especially close. At age 7, Tashon was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. But he still had use of his hands, and he tinkered for hours with computers and radios and anything mechanical. Davonte loved to ride his bike and wanted to play professional baseball.
Both boys attended Lombard Middle School. Yesterday, the school sent a letter home to parents lamenting, "Two of our students are believed to have perished in a terrible fire."
Seven others were injured in the fire. Deneen Thomas, 43, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, remained in critical condition; Oneika Ellis, 27, the mother of Marquis Ellis, was in good condition; and Amira Williams, 3, the granddaughter of Deneen Thomas, was in critical condition.
In many ways, the 13 people who found themselves inside the house Tuesday were a portrait of urban poverty in America: four generations under one roof, a foster child in search of a home, an ex-boyfriend who had nowhere else to go.
Some had criminal records. Some had endured violence. Several had health problems. But they all found a home with Deneen Thomas, who everyone called Miss Nina. She was well-known for offering shelter to people outside her own family. No one was a stranger to her.
At the barbecues she frequently hosted in her yard, "she cooked for the block," said her mother, 64-year-old Carol Howell. Miss Nina's kitchen pans were practically the size of table tops.
The family gathered yesterday at a house on Oak Hill Avenue, a block from the site of the fire. They spent the day planning for the burials - choosing obituary pictures, selecting casket colors, mapping out bus routes to the funeral home. With several families and the whole neighborhood affected, there were many decisions to make.
But 27-year-old Tiffany Howard was sure about one thing: She wanted the six people who died in her Aunt Nina's house to be buried together as a family, because that was how they lived.
"I want to do it all at once, because of the closeness of these family and friends," she said. "They weren't all related, but that is how they would have wanted it done."
Deneen Thomas had four children. Three lived with her - Davonte, Tashon and Chriseria Thomas, 20 - and one other son is in prison. That son, Nijuan Thomas, is the father of Nijuan Jr., who died in the fire. Deneen had been taking care of him.
She extended herself to others as well. Melvin Beckett, 13, was no relation to the family at all. Still, the tall, slim foster child came over to Miss Nina's to play video games with his best friend Davonte practically every chance he got, sometimes staying for long stretches, relatives said.
"Miss Nina's house was the place where he found happiness and peace," said Melvin's aunt, 41-year-old Marquietta Ladson. "He'd be gone days in a row. Weeks."
Melvin's mother was unwell, and for the past year or so he had been living with a woman in Edmondson Village, Ladson said. But he often ran away for weeks at a time, and Miss Nina's was where the aspiring basketball star frequently chose to stay. He was devoted to Davonte, but Miss Nina was just as much of a draw.
"That lady, Miss Nina, treated him like a son," Marquietta Ladson said. "Melvin loved Miss Nina. He used to say, 'I'm going to go stay with my mother,' and I'd say, 'What?' And then he'd laugh and say 'I mean Miss Nina.'"
Deneen Thomas' father, William Hyman, was a frequent guest at her home. Because of his health problems, she would often take care of him; in return, he would watch her children while she worked, most recently at a liquor store on Park Heights Avenue.
Katrice Thompson, 23, had recently been staying at the Cecil Avenue house with her ex-boyfriend, Rodney Alston. She is Deneen Thomas' niece, and her own two children stayed with another aunt a block away.
Katrice Thompson was in the house Tuesday morning but left about 6:45 a.m. to pick up her 6-year-old son and take him to school. About 7:20 she received a phone call: "Your house is on fire." She rushed back, but there was nothing she could do.
The smoke was so thick that it woke up Debbie Jones, sleeping on the second floor of her home three doors away. It was a balmy night and she had left the windows open. When she smelled the smoke, she yelled "Fire! Fire!" to alert her sister, Inez Williams, and children in the house.
When they reached the street, they realized the fire was in Deneen Thomas' house. They saw her standing at her second-floor window. They urged her to jump, but she paused, perhaps thinking of the children inside.
"Something exploded and it pushed Nina out the window," said Williams, 19. "She was still on fire when she hit the ground."
Neighbors rushed to cover her with blankets to put out the flames.
Like Davonte, Dominic Thompson, whose age was not known, had managed to escape the house as fire consumed it. He was Deneen Thomas' nephew and he had been staying in the house with his girlfriend, Oneika Ellis, and her son Marquis. Thompson was on the sidewalk when Davonte bolted back toward the house.
"Stay out!" Thompson warned Davonte, according to a witness. But the boy didn't listen. Thompson raced back into the house after him, and that's where he suffered a cardiac arrest. His condition was not known last night.
Yesterday afternoon, neighbors and relatives sat on their stoops and watched as city workers cleared the charred debris pile in front of Deneen Thomas' house. An orange machine with a huge claw scooped up blackened furniture, clothing and children's toys and deposited it all into a green Dumpster. Workers used shovels to scrape the final pieces from the black sidewalk. The acrid smell of smoke, which had finally dissipated after the fire, again filled the air on Cecil Avenue.
Stories of Davonte's heroism were repeated on stoops and corners throughout the neighborhood north of Green Mount Cemetery. Danielle Davis, Davonte's aunt, described him as Tashon's "caretaker."
"He would pick him up and carry him up and down the stairs," Davis said. "He was a big brother in a little brother's body."