A grass plot where there once was a vacant, dilapidated house that drew squatters and vermin will soon be transformed into a playground with an outdoor stage, ziplines, a water feature and a wood tree fort for children.
The Malone Children Memorial Playground on Raspe Avenue, across from City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore, will honor six children who died when their home caught fire on Jan. 12, 2017. After months of planning, it is expected to be completed in August, just in time for the new school year.
On Wednesday, the Malones — parents Bill and Katie, their surviving children Erin, Jack and Jane, plus 8-month-old Abigail — attended the ceremony. Erin, who helped her mother rescue her two surviving siblings, at times smiled widely as she looked at her former classmates in the crowd, and her parents were greeted and hugged by teachers and school staff.
The Malones squeezed together over a silver shovel to pierce the muddy ground where they received applause before Katie Malone addressed the crowd briefly, which included students who sat cross-legged on tarps on the ground, teachers, parents, local politicians and others who helped raise funds for the project and design it.
Malone, a special assistant to U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, quoted from her daughter Bridgette's favorite musical, “Hamilton.”
“What is a legacy?” Malone said, quoting from the hit show. “It’s planting seeds in a garden that you never get to see. This is Bridgette, Amelia, Amanda, Zoe, Billy and Daniel’s legacy. Love it, treasure it. Bring your children here when you are older and make sure that everything lives on.”
The family lost Bridgette, 11; Amelia, 10; twins Zoe and Amanda, 3; William “Billy,” 2; and Daniel, 8 months.
Katie Malone and the other three children were injured in the fire. Bill Malone had been at his job at Domino's Pizza in Cockeysville when the fire broke out.
“When I think about the children and all the promise that they had, I must tell you that it makes my heart ache. But the dedication and the groundbreaking of this playground will send a message, one of hope,” Cummings said to the crowd. “I’ve often said that out of death, so often comes life. It will be the children who play on this playground. They will become our legislators, our doctors, our lawyers, our teachers, our principals... Their lives will be enhanced by all of this,” Cummings said.
After a three-month-long investigation, fire investigators were unable to determine a cause of the blaze at the family’s home on Springwood Avenue, a lot where the debris has long since been removed and now sits empty.
The department classified the cause of the fire as “undetermined,” fire Chief Niles Ford said at the time.
“Our people really wanted to find a cause to this,” he said. “We went in there with a passion of believing that we would find the cause. That’s part of the reason it took so long for me to sit here before you right now. We wanted to be as thorough as we could.”
Several firefighters from the nearby station that responded to the fire attended the groundbreaking event, and they said they plan to help build parts of it.
“The night of the Springwood fire was not a normal night for the fire service,” Captain Michael Hudson said. Although he was off the night of the fire, he said he and others were shaken by the deaths of six children, even in a profession that requires him to respond regularly to tragedies. “Being able to participate in this event and work with the school so closely has helped us to deal with that event.”
JPMorgan Chase & Co., which owned the foreclosed vacant home, donated it and paid for the former structure to be razed. Company officials learned of the family’s loss and convened a group of senior executives in the mortgage division.
“For us, it was a no-brainer” to donate the house and “to commemorate the kids’ lives,” said Peter Muriungi, head of Mortgage Servicing.
“It’s not just a piece of land, it’s a celebration of life … and the precious gifts life brings,” he said.
JPMorgan Chase had offered the property to the family, but the Malones have relocated out of the neighborhood.
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Erin and Jack had finished out the school year at the City Neighbors school, but have since transferred to another school, City Neighbors Principal Kate Seidl said.
The family felt it was too painful to return to the Cedmont neighborhood, she said. While they still come back to see old friends and visit the school, they have begun to move forward with life.
The family is relocated and had Abigail, their 10th child, she said.
Their former classmates and teachers still mourn for the family, and have found ways to cope with the grief. In speeches at the Wednesday event, one young girl clutched her knees to her chest and wiped tears from her face, and was comforted by a school staff member.
Seidl said that even months after the fire, the grief still comes in waves; students can tell staff “I’m having a wave” and it’s understood why the tears have welled up, she said.
Understanding grief and trauma is important for educators to help students move forward, Seidl said. She noted that the school system recently honored nine students who had been killed this past school year.
“It’s just part of being an educator in Baltimore in 2018,” she said.