Luther Woods' eyes were red from lack of sleep and from smoke.
"It went up so fast," he said of the fire that killed his next-door neighbors in the house at 8101 Duvall Ave. in Rosedale. "There was no possible way they could get out. It was just unbelievable."
Early yesterday morning, Mr. Woods, 58, a retired baker, watched helplessly as the house next door burned down, killing Edward J. Bartos Jr., 72, Mr. Bartos' wife, Delores, 68, and her brother, Leonard Keissling, 62.
Mr. Woods said he tried to rescue his trapped neighbors, but smoke and raging flames drove him back.
"I wanted to go in," Mr. Woods said. "But if I did, I'd have never come out. They didn't have a fighting chance."
Fire officials said a kerosene heater caused the fatal blaze. They couldn't say if the heater had malfunctioned, or if combustible materials had been left too close to the heater.
When the fire broke out, Mrs. Bartos was asleep in a first-floor bedroom, her brother was asleep in an upstairs bedroom and Edward Bartos apparently was asleep on a couch in a rear first-floor television room, neighbors and witnesses said.
A passer-by woke Mr. Woods at about 1:30 a.m. He said he rushed next door to find the rear of the house engulfed in flames. He went around to the front and opened the door.
Thick, dense smoke billowed out.
Mr. Woods said he knelt down and tried to get inside the house, but the heat, flames and smoke were too much. Soot got into his right eye, he said.
Above the sounds of the roaring blaze, he could hear Mrs. Bartos crying out, but he could not make out the words.
"She was saying something, but with the fire popping and cracking, you couldn't understand what she was saying," he said.
Longtime neighbors of the Bartos' said the couple built the two-story wood-frame house in the early 1940s. They said Mr. Bartos was a retired union electrician and had served in the U.S. Navy. Mrs. Bartos worked in a bank.
"I've known him for the last 25 years," said Ray Windisch, a retired Rosedale electrician who used to work with Mr. Bartos. "A real nice guy."
Charlene Schumchyk, a family friend, said she saw Mr. Bartos at the Rosedale VFW hall last Wednesday.
"He was a loud, happy guy," she said.
Mr. Bartos, whose father, Edward J. Bartos Sr., was a member of the House of Delegates in the 1950s, belonged to the Rosedale American Legion Post 180, and to the Rosedale VFW.
He and his wife also were founding members of the Rosedale Loudmouth Club, several people said.
Richard Bartos, one of their sons, coached soccer at Towson State University. He died of leukemia about 10 years ago, said Mrs. Schumchyk, whose daughter was married to Richard.
Mr. and Mrs. Bartos are survived by three sons, Alan, Jerome and Ronald, all of Baltimore; a daughter, Susan M. Alt of W. Va.; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Yesterday, Baltimore County Battalion Chief Michael T. Whittaker said that fire investigators could find no smoke detectors in the charred remains of the Bartos home.