They had gathered at a West Baltimore rowhouse wearing black tuxedos and fancy dresses, preparing to mourn a 79-year-old family leader who died Sunday and was to be buried this morning.
Instead, they pulled up to the Edgewood Street house to find firefighters digging through debris, pulling out a stack of charred Bibles that were part of a family collection, and ambulances whisking the deceased man's widow and daughter to the hospital.
The wife, Georgia Hamlin, 77, and daughter, Joyce Black, 59, were dressing for the funeral when an air conditioner on the second floor overheated and ignited, fire officials said.
Mrs. Hamlin stumbled down stairs as flames leapt through her bedroom window and collapsed in the doorway. A neighbor, Larnell Robinson, 35, pulled her to safety.
Mrs. Hamlin and Ms. Black, who was in a first-floor room when the fire erupted about 9:20 a.m. and escaped on her own, were taken by ambulance to St. Agnes Hospital where they were being treated for smoke inhalation.
About 300 people were expected to attend the service for Robert Hamlin at the March Funeral Home. Mr. Hamlin died at St. Agnes Hospital after a long illness. Some relatives driven from several Southern states. The funeral has been postponed.
"I can't explain it," said the couple's son, Roderick King, 38. "It's just life."
Distraught friends and family gathered at neighboring houses in the Rosemont community and watched as firefighters trained hoses on the charred upstairs where many of the Hamlin family had grown up during the past 35 years.
Battalion Chief Robert Brown said investigators believe the one-alarm fire started in a second floor bedroom when an air conditioner overheated and ignited the combustible casing. He said the occupants had complained earlier that the cooling device was not working properly.
Mrs. Hamlin's front second-floor bedroom was burned out, and the rest of the house had smoke and water damage. Chief Brown estimated damages at $5,000. It took firefighters about 20 minutes to bring the blaze under control.
Arthur Robinson, 44, who lives across the street and has known the family for 31 years, said he was one of several people who called the Fire Department.
"I came out and the house was in flames," he said. "And on the day he [Mr. Hamlin] was to be buried. This is bad luck on top of it."