Mourners were to gather at a West Baltimore rowhouse in preparation for the funeral of a 79-year-old family leader who died Sunday and was to be buried yesterday.
But when they pulled up to the Edgewood Street house yesterday, wearing black tuxedos and fancy dresses, they found firefighters digging through debris and 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 widow, 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 the stairs as flames leapt through her bedroom window. She collapsed near the front door. A neighbor, Larnell Robinson, 35, pulled her to safety.
Mrs. Hamlin and Ms. Black, who was in a first-floor room when the fire began about 9:20 a.m. and escaped on her own, were taken by ambulance to St. Agnes Hospital, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and released, a hospital spokeswoman said.
About 300 people, including relatives who had driven from several Southern states, were expected to attend the service for Robert Hamlin at the March Funeral Home. Mr. Hamlin died at St. Agnes after a long illness. The funeral has been postponed.
"I can't explain it," said the couple's son, Roderick King, 38. "It's just life."
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 property damage 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."