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Northeast Baltimore fire that injured 9 ruled arson; babysitter and 16-year-old neighbor aided dramatic rescue

Baltimore Police are investigating a fire on Plainfield Avenue as arson.
Baltimore Police are investigating a fire on Plainfield Avenue as arson. (Kenneth Lam)

Someone intentionally set a fire that gutted a Northeast Baltimore home and injured nine people, fire officials said, setting the stage for a dramatic rescue before dawn Sunday.

As flames rapidly engulfed the home — and firefighters were dispatched to an incorrect address more than a mile away — a babysitter dropped three children from a second-story window into the arms of a police officer on the ground, neighbors said.

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“I believe the babysitter and police officer did a great job of getting those kids out of there,” said Calvin Bethea, the children’s uncle.

While waiting for fire crews to arrive, 16-year-old Davonte Powell brought over ladders from his home across the street to help with the rescue. Awoken by the commotion just before 1 a.m., the Dunbar High School sophomore stood barefoot, holding the bottom of a ladder as police climbed up to the other people trapped above, his mother said.

“I just wanted the people to survive,” Davonte said in an interview Monday. "I just wanted the kids and the people to come out and be safe.”

Detectives determined Monday afternoon that an arsonist set the blaze in the 5100 block of Plainfield Avenue, causing the three boys, four adults and two police officers to be treated for smoke inhalation after the rescue, police and fire officials said.

Chief Roman Clark, a Fire Department spokesman, declined to share any details about what led investigators to that conclusion. But he was definitive about the cause: “This was an arson."

The Baltimore Fire Department also is reviewing why a 911 dispatcher sent units to the wrong address.

The officers were released from the hospital Sunday, according to police, and the boys — ages 2, 5 and 9 — were released Monday, their uncle said. The condition of the four others injured was not provided. None of the victims’ names were released.

The fire at the two-story brick duplex wasn’t the first 911 call for help at the house that night.

An officer responded about 10 p.m. — roughly three hours before the fire — to a reported domestic larceny, said Det. Donny Moses, a Baltimore police spokesman. No report was taken, Moses said, but detectives are investigating any links between the earlier call and the fire.

“Of course that’s something we’re looking into,” Moses said.

The boys’ uncle, who lives around the corner, said it was “really bad” that his nephews were inside the house when the fire happened. He didn’t get the call until the ambulances had sped off to take the injured people to hospitals, he said.

“It’s rough when you’ve got three children, and they get caught up in the mix of an adult situation, and the children get hurt,” Bethea said.

Key Culbreath, who lives down the street, looked up from a marathon viewing of “Locke & Key” on Netflix when she saw headlights in her window around 10 p.m.

It was the first officer, turning around in her driveway while responding to the earlier 911 call, she said. She glanced outside, saw the officer talking to a woman at the house, and figured it must’ve been a routine disturbance.

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Hours later, lights and sirens filled the street, and flames leapt from the same house.

“Flames were gushing out of the window,” she said. “Someone’s screaming ‘Help!’ ‘Help!’”

She put on slippers and ran outside to see what was happening. But when she got outside, the sight made Culbreath cover her face with both hands.

“I couldn’t even watch,” she said.

When a medic passed with the soot-covered, barefoot babysitter, Culbreath gave the woman the slippers off her feet and went inside to get another pair of shoes.

Culbreath said she generally distrusts police, but the sight of an officer cradling one of the children in his arms was “a moment of empathy,” she said.

“It changed the way I see them — the look on his face, the tears in his eyes,” she said. “It did something for me. I needed to see that.”

Culbreath said she knew it must’ve been arson when detectives and crime lab technicians lingered at the house until 5 a.m. after the fire.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the officers went “above and beyond their call of duty to help save lives.”

”Their actions are a testament of their valor," Harrison said in a statement. “If not for the quick thinking of the babysitter, the house fire could have ended in tragedy. The officers’ decisions to put their lives at risk, truly exemplifies all that our department stands for. I am proud of the actions that these officers took and their bravery.”

City Councilwoman Danielle McCray, who represents the area, said she was saddened by the news of the fire but considered it lucky no one was seriously injured.

"I commend the heroic actions of the babysitter who rescued the young children, Baltimore City Fire, and Baltimore Police Department for containing the fire and minimizing the damage,” said McCray, a Democrat, in a statement.

Dawnice Powell, who has lived in the neighborhood for five months, suspected the fire might have been intentionally set because her mother, who lives with her, heard a police officer tackle someone who had been running away from the burning house.

Police did not say whether they have arrested any suspects in the case.

The speed at which the fire spread from the front room on the first floor to the rest of the house stunned Dawnice Powell, mother of the teen who fetched the ladder to help police.

“The whole thing went up so fast,” she said.

After hearing an officer shout for a ladder, 16-year-old Davonte first brought over a 6-foot one they keep in the basement, his mother said.

It wasn’t tall enough, so he returned home, retrieving a 24-foot ladder from the ceiling of the garage to aid in the rescue.

“It was crazy,” Davonte said. “I can’t even explain it. The only word I can think of is ‘catastrophic.’”

Dawnice Powell, 37, said she was “so proud of him.”

Both the Powells were impressed by the officer who helped the trapped people to safety.

“He really did his job and went the extra mile,” Dawnice Powell said. “Glass was busting out at him and everything. We don’t know his name, but he was the first officer on scene.”

The officer shook Davonte’s hand afterward and “basically was telling me I was a hero and I saved a lot of people’s lives,” the teenager said.

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