Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Candle causes fire at rowhouse 9 die

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A story in yesterday's editions reported incorrectly the name of Tyler Edwards, 11, one of nine people killed in a West Baltimore house fire. Also, a 2-year-old boy was saved from the fire, not a girl.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Seven children and two adults died in a rowhouse fire in West Baltimore Saturday night when a candle used as the only source of light set the house ablaze, causing one of the deadliest fires in the city's history, authorities said.

Three others survived the blaze, including a 2-year-old girl who was thrown to safety by her mother from a second-floor window shortly before midnight. The mother also survived after jumping to the pavement below.

The fire broke out at 2035 Hollins St. -- 20 blocks from a fatal fire last month that killed seven members of another West Baltimore family. The Jan. 9 fire in the 600 block of Edgewood St. was started when clothing left over a heating grate in the floor ignited.

Fire officials said Saturday's fire started on the first floor when a candle was either knocked over or placed too close to combustible items. The fire raced up the staircase of the narrow two-story rowhouse, engulfing it in flames.

Fire officials believe the cause of death for all nine victims was smoke inhalation. Autopsies are scheduled for today.

Thick smoke enveloped Hollins Street, making it difficult for firefighters to find the burning house.

"Visibility was zero," said Acting Battalion Chief Carey Woodlon, among the first firefighters on the scene from Engine Company 14, two blocks away. "In fact, I had to stop my car on the corner and walk down to see which house was on fire."

The children who died ranged in age from 8 months to 11 years, according to Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman. He said the house had no smoke detectors.

The rented home had been without electricity since October because the tenants failed to pay $1,600 in utility bills, according to a spokesman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

In the first two months of this year, 25 people have died in Baltimore fires, compared with one at this time last year. Thirty-four people died in fires in all of 1993.

"I am greatly concerned because of the fact that we've had two multiple-death fires in which we lost the lives of 16 people," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who visited the fire scene about 1:30 a.m. In his statement, he said, "I recognize that this has been a very cold winter, but we simply have to continue to emphasize the fact that we need to exercise caution to prevent these needless deaths."

Firefighters said they are particularly frustrated because just two weeks ago they went on "a blitz" to encourage people to install smoke detectors and regularly check them to ensure they work.

At noon today, firefighters will canvass the neighborhood in another campaign, which they routinely do after fatal fires.

"The idea that 'it is not going to happen to us' just permeates portions of the community," said Shift Commander Joseph R. Dillon, who oversees battalion chiefs. "Firefighters see so much during the course of their career. It is tough because they feel that every effort they made was in vain.

"This station right here might have this type of fire three times a week, four times a week. Maybe on a busy night, three in one night," Commander Dillon said while standing in the bay of Engine Company 14.

"The tragedy is that you wind up with nine people dead over something you made every effort in the world to contain. That's the frustrating thing about the job."

2nd deadliest in 45 years

Saturday's fire was the city's second deadliest blaze in at least 45 years. In May 1982, 10 people, including seven children, perished in a two-alarm rowhouse fire near Clifton Park in the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. At the time, city fire officials said it was the deadliest fire they could recall since at least 1947.

In Saturday night's blaze, neighbors said they heard a boy shouting for help from the street shortly before midnight when the fire broke out.

Chief Torres, who called the fire a "major catastrophe," said the department received the first 911 call at 11:41 p.m., about the same time several neighbors pounded on the door to Engine Company 14 to alert the firefighters inside.

George Polk, 25, said he was in his living room, about to go to bed, when he heard glass breaking across the street. From his window, he said, he saw teen-agers rush from the corner of Hollins and Pulaski streets to the burning house to catch the falling infant.

"When it happened, it was quick," Mr. Polk said. "Everybody tried to help out. But it was sudden and the flames were so bad that you couldn't do anything at all. Even I tried to make an attempt."

The one-alarm fire, which caused an estimated $48,000 in damage, was extinguished minutes past midnight, but by the time firefighters could get into the home, the nine people trapped were already dead.

Chief Torres said Lionell Green, 14, was the only family member sleeping on the first floor when the house caught fire.

He was treated at the University of Maryland Medical Center and released early yesterday.

The 2-year-old child who was thrown from the second floor, Davon Rouzer, also was released from the medical center yesterday.

The child's mother, Henriett Rouzer, 21, who jumped from the second floor, was listed in fair condition yesterday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Three of Ms. Rouzer's children died. They were identified as Dionta Rouzer, 8 months, Eldridge Rouzer, 4, and Nikita Rouzer, 5.

Everyone in the house except a boyfriend was related.

Four other children who died were identified by officials as Jackie Roberts Jr., 1, Sierra Roberts, 8, Antwon Roberts, 9, and Tyla Edwards, 11. Chief Torres said their parents, who also live at the Hollins Street house, were not home at the time of the fire.

The two adults who died were identified as Villett Green, 28, who a relative said was pregnant, and her boyfriend, Pierre Dorsey, 24.

Chief Woodlon said the fire was among the most tragic he has witnessed in 25 years as a Baltimore firefighter.

"My people did a tremendous job," he said. "They were constantly being beat back by the tremendous heat coming from the building. . . . When I walked up to the second floor and saw that baby, I almost lost it after 25 years. The baby was laying on the bed with a diaper."

The house is located in the community of Boyd-Booth, a block from Bon Secours Hospital. Five houses on the block where the fire broke out are vacant and boarded up, while others are rented by absentee landlords, according to city tax records.

The house where the fire broke out is owned by GZS Inc., whose officers could not be determined yesterday.

In the fire's aftermath, charred clothing, furniture, mattresses and toys were heaped in front of the home, and the sidewalk was coated with a thick layer of ice from the water the firefighters had used to extinguish the blaze.

Kevin Thornton, a spokesman for BG&E;, said the electricity in the home was cut off in October because the tenants failed to pTC pay utility bills.

He said the gas to the home, however, remained on, under a BG&E; policy of not turning off both gas and electric services at a home.

He said the home had been heated by an oil furnace, which can only be turned on by electricity.

Heating system was off

Therefore, he said, the heating system was off at the time of the fire.

Both he and Chief Torres said they did not know how the house was being heated -- if at all -- at the time of the fire.

Mr. Thornton said BG&E; had been in contact with one tenant -- he would not say who -- on eight occasions in an attempt to arrange a payment plan, as well as some grants to help restore her electric service.

But the power company only received a partial payment of $284 in December from the state's energy assistance program -- which was not enough to restore power.

"The gas and electric company ought to have a heart," said Hilda Greene, Mr. Dorsey's aunt, who came to the house yesterday afternoon to see the devastation first hand after getting a call from her sister.

"I didn't know it was this bad," she said. "She didn't tell me this many people got burned. You're on welfare, you have a limited income and you are just stressed out trying to make ends meet. . . . In this kind of weather, nobody wants these children to be without lights and heat."

All afternoon, cars slowed in front of the burned-out house. People drawn to the tragedy for a variety of reasons, all left shaking their heads.

"It's a damn shame," said James Parker, who lived in the house from 1966 to 1968. "It was a quiet neighborhood, no drugs or anything like that."

Clara and David Lucas, who live two doors away with their four children, said they rushed their family out of their home when the fire broke out and took refuge at a corner house until the flames were extinguished.

Their home was unharmed.

Mrs. Lucas said some of the victims had lived in the house for about a year, although one of the women and her four children had just moved in about a week ago.

Mr. Lucas said the children who died in the blaze would often come to his door asking for work. He said he would pay them to help clean the back yard of a vacant house that sits between their homes.

Another neighbor, James Blackwell, 61, said his three grandchildren also played with the victims. When he first saw the flames, he said the first thing he thought was, "What about the kids?"

He said his grandson, Latrell Leath, 5, asked him this morning, "Did they go to heaven?"

Chief Woodlon, trying in vain to fight back tears while looking at the remains of the rowhouse yesterday afternoon, could only shake his head as he summed up the tragedy.

"You never get used to death," he said.

BALTIMORE'S DEADLIEST FIRES

May 15, 1982 Ten people died in a two-alarm rowhouse blaze at 2781 Tivoly Ave., near Clifton Park. A candle that toppled over and ignited a sofa was listed as the cause of the fire, which officials said at the time was the deadliest in more than 35 years. Electrical power had been cut off a day earlier for nonpayment of an $808 BG&E; bill.

Feb. 26, 1994 Nine people, including seven children, died at 2035 Hollins St., a West Baltimore rowhouse where electrical power had been cut off in October because of unpaid bills. A candle being used as a light source ignited the blaze, officials said.

Dec. 9, 1983 Eight people, including five children, died in a West Baltimore rowhouse blaze, in the 1100 block of N. Monroe St., believed to have been caused by careless smoking.

Jan. 9, 1994 A blaze in the 600 block of Edgewood St. in West Baltimore claimed the lives of seven people, six of them children. Investigators said clothing piled on top of a heating grate ignited the rowhouse blaze.

March 27, 1975 Seven people died in an early morning fire at a rowhouse in the 1700 block of Woodbourne Ave.

Several city fires accounted for the loss of six lives, including an East Baltimore rowhouse blaze in the 2400 block of E. Eager St., July 7, 1992, that killed six children. The blaze was set by their mother, Tonya Lucas, who was sentenced last year to six consecutive life terms in prison.

Also, a fire at Arundel Park Auditorium, just south of the Baltimore line, claimed 10 lives on Jan. 30, 1956. The fire, described then as the worst since the Baltimore fire of 1904, engulfed the large building where more than 1,100 people were attending an oyster roast. At least 130 people were injured.

CORRECTION
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