A young woman and two children were killed yesterday morning in a Baltimore rowhouse blaze believed linked to an air conditioner as a summer heat wave sent temperatures soaring to record readings.
Bright sunshine, temperatures reaching triple digits, high humidity and the virtual absence of a breeze made the day seem all the hotter -- and one of the most "unhealthful" this year, according to the state Department of the Environment, which issued a smog alert for the metropolitan area.
The mercury peaked at 102 degrees in the city and 99 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in midafternoon, matching records set at each location in 1986. But high humidity made the temperature feel hotter -- producing a "heat index" of 105 to 110 degrees.
Today could be even more miserable, according to Fred Davis, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service's BWI office. And forecasts offered no hint of relief through the weekend. "The high pressure is still strong enough to keep anything from moving," he said.
Sunshine had just begun to bake the city about 8 a.m. when flames and smoke erupted from the rowhouse in the 2400 block of E. Biddle St. Neighbors were unable to help as they saw 18-year-old Robin Hobson struggle at the window of the second-floor front bedroom where she and the two children had been sleeping.
"I looked up and said, 'Oh, my God, she's in the window,' " said neighbor Sandra Joseph. "Her face was so swollen. . . . You could tell she could hardly move. She kept tapping at the window.
"We kept yelling for her to go around the back. But evidently there was too much fire. Then when the [first-floor] air conditioner blew up, the flames went up the front of the building and she disappeared."
Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said firefighters from Truck Company 15, located a block and half away at Montford and Mura streets, were alerted by neighbors but could not save the victims. "When they arrived, [the house] was fully engulfed in flames."
Found dead in the bedroom were Ms. Hobson; her daughter, Maryha, 18 months, and a girl she was baby-sitting, 7-year-old Jakea Burden of the 2200 block of Jefferson St., authorities said.
Robert Hobson, 77, the grandfather of Robin Hobson, said he left the house about 7 a.m. to open his laundromat across the street. "When I left they were all asleep," he said. "I was going to go back to the house about 8 o'clock to take my medicine and drink a cup of coffee, but a couple of people stopped and asked me for some change."
Moments later, he said, someone yelled to him, "Pop, your house is on fire."
"By the time I got across the street I could see it was too late. Flames were coming out the windows on the second floor," Mr. Hobson said.
He said his granddaughter and her child had come from Florida to stay with him last month after the death of his 74-year-old wife, Enolia Hobson. He said his granddaughter had been sleeping in the first-floor living room, but decided Tuesday night to use the second-floor bedroom.
"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "I guess God was looking after me, or I would have been in the house, too."
Chief Torres said investigators believed the fire started as a result of a faulty air conditioner or wiring in the first-floor front living room. "It was an accidental fire. It started in the area of the air conditioner. We can't say for certain which might have started it," he said.
Baltimore appeared to be the hottest place in Maryland, according to Weather Service and state police observations. But outdoor comfort was hard to find across the state, with highs reaching the mid- to upper 90s in every county except Garrett.
The Environment Department said yesterday was the area's eighth day this year of "unhealthful air" due to high ozone levels.
Ozone -- or smog -- forms when nitrogen oxides react with volatile organic compounds in the presence of high heat and sunlight. Sources of the chemical pollutants, the department said, include automobile exhaust, power plants, gasoline vapor, and the use of solvents, paints and printing inks.
"Children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems are advised to reduce physical exertion and outside activity," the department said.