Sean McCullough's father often walked him and his older brother to school after working an overnight shift at the 7-Eleven on Lexington Street downtown.
But on Monday — the last day of the year at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School — the 7-year-old boy's father rushed home about 2 a.m. when he heard that the family's home on North Bruce Street in the Franklin Square neighborhood in West Baltimore was engulfed in flames, family and neighbors said.
Sean was trapped on the second floor of the rowhouse and died after firefighters pulled him from the blaze, officials said. His 8-year-old brother managed to rescue their 4-year-old sister, throwing her from a window into the arms of onlookers below, according to the Fire Department, family and neighbors. The older brother then suffered life-threatening injuries as he tried to get Sean out of the house, officials said.
The brother is listed in critical condition at an area hospital; the sister was released.
Sean's uncle, Ronnie Davis, said the house had been in the family for generations and Sean's parents were in the process of updating it. Davis left the house Monday afternoon, carrying a laptop computer and a yellowed classroom photo. He and two others loaded trash bags of belongings into a minivan.
"They lost everything," he said.
He said Sean's father, also named Sean, worked nights at the 7-Eleven to support his children while his wife attended a local university. Sean's grandparents also lived at the home, he said, but managed to escape the blaze uninjured.
Sean McCullough and his two siblings were well-known on the short, close-knit block between Saratoga and Mulberry streets, neighbor Dwayne Harrison said. The three children were always respectful, he said, and full of energy. Another neighbor said the street would be covered in their chalk drawings if it weren't for the recent rain.
The department received a call for the fire at 1:39 a.m. and was on the scene within two minutes, Fire Department spokesman Ian Brennan said. The fire was under control by 2:13 a.m., when firefighters went to the upper floor of the house and found the two children, he said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, Brennan said. If the child is determined to have been killed by the fire, he would be the ninth person and the third youth to die in a fire this year. In March, two young children and an adult were killed in a two-alarm fire at a Curtis Bay home on Grace Court.
Eight-year-old Troy Douglas died when the wall of an East Baltimore home collapsed following a gas explosion in February. He is not listed as a fire death.
At this time last year, the city reported 10 fire deaths. There were 21 total last year.
Harrison, 45, said he and others watched the fire, unable to help as the flames grew too large for anyone to go inside. One neighbor tried but was turned back by the smoke and heat. The staircase inside had collapsed, Harrison said.
"It's like your hands are tied behind your back. ... It was a tragedy just to know they were in the house. I ain't never seen anything like that in my life," he said after placing a black, fuzzy top hat alongside some small stuffed animals on the burned-out house's front steps.
Harrison said Sean loved to wear the hat and dance to music. He said the boy also loved to play football and basketball, and ride his scooter.
"It happened so fast. Like something from a horror flick, knowing they were up there," he said.
Another neighbor, Yvonne Lyles said she was in her bedroom at her home across the narrow street when she smelled smoke coming from the fan in her window. She looked outside, saw flames through her neighbor's upstairs window and called 911.
She said she was put on hold, but fire crews soon got to the scene. "Smoke and fire was everywhere," she said. "It just happened so quick."
Firefighters pulled one limp little boy down the ladder from the second floor, Lyles said. At that point, she said she could no longer watch.
Sean McCullough was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead. A firefighter also suffered injuries but was treated at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and released, according to the department.
Neighbors passed by the house throughout the day to check out the damage.
One little boy paused in front of the house before running up the street to toss a football. A handful of neighbors sat on the front steps of a vacant house to avoid the sun. Several vacant houses on the block have red X signs warning firefighters that structures are unstable.
Cora Bowser's home, next to Sean's, was largely untouched by the blaze, Bowser said. Her daughter complained that many of the city's older homes have unsafe wiring.
Brennan said the home was believed to have had working smoke alarms. He said as a result of the fatality, firefighters plan to go door to door to talk to residents about fire safety.
Harrison sat on steps near the family's burned belongs that were left a heap on the sidewalk. He promisedto watch over the few belongings so "scrappers" wouldn't take anything.
He recalled the time he returned from a fishing trip with a live fish, the first Sean McCullough had ever seen. Intrigued, the boy grabbed the fish from Harrison's bucket, saying it couldn't be real and that he wanted to go fishing, too.
Davis, the uncle, described Sean and his brother as being selfless.
"Sean wouldn't let you do anything without asking if you needed help," Davis said. He smiled as he recalled how he challenged Sean to tackle a sink full of dirty dishes. He did all the dishes in 42 minutes (his uncle timed him) and then asked what else needed to be done.
Davis said the three children never fought. The older brothers would look out for their little sister. They would tell her she had to eat all the food on her plate.
Dav is said he heard that during the fire, onlookers told Sean's brother to jump. "He said, 'No, Sean is still there.' Then he went back for his brother even though it was still burning."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.
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