An 8-year-old girl helped her mother pull her two younger brothers out of a fire that consumed their Northeast Baltimore home so rapidly early Thursday morning that distraught neighbors and firefighters could do nothing to save their six other siblings.
After extinguishing the fire in the 4200 block of Springwood Avenue, just off Belair Road, the Fire Department spent much of the day Thursday searching for and recovering the bodies of the children. Fire officials said they were a 9-month-old boy, a 2-year-old boy, 3-year-old twin girls, and 10- and 11-year-old girls.
The children's mother, Katie Malone, a special assistant to U.S. Rep Elijah E. Cummings, remained in critical condition at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Pulled from the fire by their sister, the two boys, ages 4 and 5, were in critical condition in the pediatric intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The 8-year-old was hospitalized but released Thursday.
The death of six of the nine children in a fire so hot it partially melted a nearby car devastated many both on the scene in the Cedmont neighborhood and throughout the area.
Fire Chief Niles Ford described arriving at the home early Thursday to a painful scene: Three of his firefighters had taken a knee in the front yard, unable to get inside.
"We did everything we could, Chief," one told him.
"I know you did," he replied.
As heavy construction equipment that arrived after sunrise cleared debris to aid crews in their recovery efforts, neighbors described being awakened by the fire and their growing despair after realizing that members of the large family were trapped inside.
Roused from his bed around midnight by a loud boom and commotion at the house across the street, Robert Spencer, 51, said he got outside just as Malone was running around the side of her burning house.
"I said, 'Where's the babies at?' She said, 'They're in the house,'" an emotional Spencer said.
He gave her his jacket and began searching for a way into the home, but the fire was too powerful. His family, he said, restrained him from trying to go inside.
"The flames was coming from everywhere," he said. "You could feel the heat."
Unable to help, Spencer went back home and tried to sleep but couldn't. All he could hear in his head were the children's cries from inside the house.
It was one of the deadliest fires in Baltimore's recent history. In 2002, Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children were killed in a fire in an East Baltimore rowhouse in retaliation for their calling police about drug dealing. In 2007, six people, including children, were killed in a fire near Green Mount Cemetery. In 2010, three children and three adults were killed in a fire in the East Baltimore Midway neighborhood.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
All three stories of the house were already engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived about 12:30 a.m., Chief Roman Clark said.
The top floor collapsed onto the second floor shortly afterward, said Clark, the department's spokesman. Driven back, firefighters had to battle the blaze from outside the home, he said.
William Malone, the children's father, was not at home at the time of the blaze because he works for a restaurant.
"I'm still in shock to be honest," said Malone, reached by phone at a relative's home. He said he does not know what may have caused the fire.
Cummings said he spoke at length to Malone, who told him his wife "is going to be OK."
Katie Malone worked in his Catonsville office for nearly 11 years, according to staff, handling issues such as immigration, postal services and the military, including service academy nominations.
"It's a very difficult time for our office," Cummings told reporters at a news conference Thursday morning. "My staff is a family, and this unimaginable tragedy is shocking and heartbreaking to us all."
Even those who didn't know the family were moved by the tragedy. A Go Fund Me page established by someone identifying herself as an in-law had raised more than four times its $20,000 goal for the Malone family by 8:30 p.m.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh went to the home Thursday afternoon and called the losses a tragedy that "touches everybody in our city."
"To know that so many children are not going to be with us as a result of this incident is so painful," she said in a news conference outside the home. "What I want to ask Baltimore to do is to pray for the family. ... It's hard to say anything other than to pray for the family."
William Gray, 37, who lives on the block, said the fire appeared to have started on the enclosed front porch and spread rapidly — "almost in no time" — to the rest of the house.
"It took them a while to battle the blaze," he said. "As they watered it down, it continued to flare up."
Gray said he didn't know the family personally but always exchanged hellos when he saw the children playing in the neighborhood.
The home is in the Cedmont neighborhood just a few blocks from the Baltimore County line. The roughly 2,000-square-foot home was built in 1910, according to state tax records. On Thursday, the home's front wall was charred and buckled, with debris strewn across the front yard.
While excavating equipment cleared the debris, firefighters searched by hand for the missing children. The first of the children's bodies was recovered about 10:30 a.m., Clark said. By midafternoon, they'd found all the bodies, three on the first floor and three on the second.
Neighboring homes showed slight damage — siding had melted from one of the homes — but fire crews appear to have been able to keep the blaze contained.
At City Neighbors Charter School on Raspe Avenue, 9-year-old Lola DeBloom started crying as she talked about one of the Malone girls, a fourth-grade classmate.
"She was nice," Lola said as her father wrapped his arm around her and they continued on their way home. She said teachers spoke to students on Thursday about the fire.
Many parents and children were visibly upset, some crying, others hugging each other and a crossing guard as she stopped traffic.
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said officials are waiting for more information on those involved, but will offer support to the family and schools involved.
"I am heartbroken by the devastating reports of last night's fire, and I pray for the children and family who were trapped in this tragedy," she said.
City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who represents the area, said the fire "is truly a tragedy and is devastating to our community."
The fire follows a difficult December for Baltimore fire crews. Four young children and a 90-year-old woman died in fires in the city in December. Sixteen people died in fires in Baltimore in 2016.
On Dec. 10, Polly Taylor, 90, was pulled from a burning home in the 400 block of Denison St. in Lower Edmondson Village. She died of smoke inhalation.
The same day, Kamarl Ferrell, 10, and Tylynn McDuffie, 1, died after a fire broke out in the 2400 block of Dorton Court in Westport in South Baltimore. A 27-year-old and 4-year-old also were injured in that blaze.
Two young boys, Nigel Ramirez, 3, and 9-month-old Exekial Ramirez, died in a burning home in the 600 block of N. Clinton St. in East Baltimore on Dec. 7.
Linda Gruzs, 64, president of the Cedmont Community Improvement Association, said she did not know the family but said her phone was ringing all morning from concerned neighbors. She said there have been more younger families moving into the community.
She awoke to sirens and then saw flames coming from the home a block away.
"It's not something you want to see," she said. "I kept praying, 'Please let everyone get out safe.' I was just heartsick when I heard it was full of children."
Lacy Rowan, who lives up the street, said her heart "just sank" when she realized some of the children she often saw walking to school and playing in the front yard and on the porch were trapped.
"My heart's just heavy," Rowan said.