A woman and two of her children were killed and five other kids were injured after a fire broke out early Monday during a sleepover at an East Baltimore rowhouse, fire officials said.
Janice Williams died in the fire along with her 7-year-old daughter and middle-school-aged son, her family said. Her other two children survived; her youngest, a 2-year-old boy, was rescued from the blaze by a neighbor, family said.
The house had been full because the family was having a sleepover with their cousins, according to relatives and fire department officials.
Firefighters were called around 3 a.m. Monday to Williams’ two-story rowhouse in the 1500 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. in the Broadway East neighborhood, Baltimore City Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams said.
Once the firefighters gained control of the fire and entered the rowhouse, they found three people dead. Adams identified the victims only as a 35-year-old woman, a 7-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy. Family and community members said they were Williams and her kids Aubrey and Antwan Branch, though a cousin said the boy was actually 12.
Five other boys — ages 2, 9, 11, 13 and 15 — and a 33-year-old man were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Adams said. Fire officials said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation, and that the home had working smoke alarms.
Family members remained outside the badly damaged home Monday morning. Bright-colored children’s toys were among the items discarded outside the home, along with broken furniture and other debris left in a large pile on the sidewalk. The blaze-blackened walls inside the home could be seen through the broken windows. A heavy burnt smell lingered in the air.
“It’s just really hard,” said Williams’ cousin Tionne Bratton-Bey. “Right before Thanksgiving.”
Jessica Waters, a neighbor, said she was asleep inside her nearby home when all of a sudden she heard screaming.
“Help! Help!” she heard a man shriek.
The 29-year-old rushed out of her home. Waters said she first carried an older woman across the street to safety, then she kicked open the back door of the rowhouse, helping several children escape.
As she ushered the children away from the flames, Waters said she heard a voice shouting: “I’m trapped!”
She looked up and saw a boy falling from a window. She stretched out her arms, grabbing him and wrapping him in a blanket. Waters said the little boy was just in a diaper.
“I was a little distraught because there were three other people in there that I couldn’t save, so that did something to me,” she said. “I just did what felt right. But I’m just glad I was able to help.”
Sterling Avery, 11, was sleeping inside the home when he heard someone yell “Fire!” He roused his two brothers, 13-year-old Brion Patterson and 9-year-old Robert Rich, and tried to wake his cousin Antwan.
“I thought he got up, but he didn’t,” Sterling said.
The three brothers ran downstairs and out the back door of the home, Sterling said. The brothers often slept over at their cousin’s home, Sterling said, since they live close by, and they all would go to school together in the morning.
Antwan was a seventh grader at Collington Square Elementary/Middle School down the street, said Latria Bond, the school’s assistant principal, during a vigil for the family outside their home Monday evening.
“This was his first year there, but from the first day that he walked through the door for registration, he came with a smile,” Bond said.
Aubrey was a first grader at Villa Cresta Elementary in Baltimore County, according to a letter sent to parents of students there.
“The entire VCES community is heartbroken by this tragic news. For those of our students and families who knew Aubrey, we ask that you remember her,” read the letter from school principal Jenny Rohrbaugh.
Friends, relatives, teachers, neighbors and elected officials gathered Monday night to pray for those affected. Huddled together in the cold, standing before the charred home, the crowd applauded Waters, who wiped away tears.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I tried the best I could.”
Williams’ stepmother, Bonita Brooks, said she had just talked to Williams on Sunday about their holiday plans. Instead of finalizing those plans, the family now must plan three funerals.
“Janice was a sweetheart,” Brooks said. “She was a loving mother and a person with a good heart.”
She said Williams was often the person in the family who others would go to get their hair done. Brooks said her long, red braids were done by Williams the week before.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “It’s something you don’t expect.”
Bratton-Bey said the family is left without their mother, but also basic necessities. They’ve created a GoFundMe to collect money for the family, which also will fund “therapy and grief counseling.”
City Councilman Antonio Glover, whose district encompasses the Broadway East neighborhood where the fire occurred, urged people to be particularly mindful of fire safety measures heading into the winter. He reminded people to check their smoke detectors, to not use their stove or range to heat homes and to not leave space heaters unattended.
“This is an absolute tragedy, and my hearts and prayers go out to the loved ones of those affected by this fire,” Glover said in a statement. “It is imperative to remain vigilant about fire safety as we go through the winter months.”
So far this year, Baltimore City has had 10 fatalities from fires, including Monday’s incident. Last year, seven people died, which was the fewest recorded in a single year in more than 200 years in the city.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said his “heart goes out” to the family and friends who lost loved ones in the fire.
“I am praying for a full recovery of the six people injured, including five children,” Scott said in a statement. “With the holidays around the corner, I ask that you keep the family and community in your thoughts.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this article.