After firefighters pulled two children and their mother from a burning bedroom of an East Baltimore rowhouse yesterday morning, one of the rescuers found the smoke detectors that might have saved their lives.
Instead of hanging on a wall or from a ceiling, the two life-saving devices were tucked away in the top drawer of a charred dresser in the same room where the victims were found.
One was still in its box. The other had a fresh battery installed -- its high-pitched wail sounded when a firefighter took it out.
"It is hard to say why the [detector] was in there," said Battalion Chief Hector Torres, a Fire Department spokesman. "Perhaps the owner may have purchased it at some point and might have forgotten about it. It certainly provided no protection."
The chief said that had the detectors been properly installed, Bertana Spence, 39, and her two sons, James Cartwell, 5, and Tony Carey, 8, would probably have escaped the 6:40 a.m. fire that destroyed their rowhouse in the 800 block of E. 22nd St.
The three fire victims bring to 20 the number of people killed this year in Baltimore fires. It was the second triple-fatal fire this month.
"It was terrible," said Esther Harried, 62, who lives across the street from yesterday's fire, and reported seeing thick, black smoke pour out of the windows. "I've never seen anything like this. I thought I was going to drop dead. People said they were screaming in there."
Neighbors in the East Baltimore-Midway community said the mother, Ms. Spence, escaped the flames, but then rushed back inside the burning two-story rowhouse in a failed attempt to save her children, who were in a front second-floor bedroom.
"If I were her and I heard those children, I would go in," Ms. Harried said.
Michael Bailey, who lives next-door to the burned rowhouse, said his 4-year-old great-niece, Asia Bailey, woke up his family. "Something's burning, get out of the house, get out of the house," the youngster reportedly yelled.
The two-alarm fire was caused by a malfunctioning television set in the first-floor living room, according to investigators. Chief Torres said the TV had been left on all night, and the person watching it, 18-year-old Danny Adams, another of Ms. Spence's sons, had fallen asleep. He escaped unharmed.
Firefighters rushed upstairs and pulled the victims outside. Both children were in full cardiac arrest and had suffered smoke inhalation. They were rushed to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where they were pronounced dead at 7:37 a.m.
Firefighters who pulled Ms. Spence out of the house thought she might be alive, but Chief Torres said paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene.
The fire occurred just hours before school started at Cecil Elementary, around the corner from the fire scene. It is where the two victims went to class.
Many neighborhood children walking to school yesterday paused at the smoldering remains, sadly shaking their heads.
"We have teary eyes in the school today," said Cecil's principal, Anna Coplin, who went to the fire scene. She knew Tony Carey well.
"He's always been a well-mannered young man," she said. "He was a good worker, had a good appearance and was a kind, ideal child, which you would be very proud to have. He never complained. He never got into trouble."
A crisis team spent the day at the school, which has more than 700 students, and helped distraught teachers as well as students cope with the tragedy. "Teachers of both children are taking it pretty badly," Ms. Coplin said.
Ms. Coplin said the family was in the process of renovating the home and enclosing an open front porch, which may be why working smoke detectors were not installed.
On March 10, another fatal fire claimed three lives, when a grandmother and her two grandsons, a 6-year-old and a 5-month-old, died in the 400 block of N. Port St. That house also was lacking smoke detectors.
It broke out on the same day that city fire officials announced a program to give away thousands of free smoke detectors to needy city residents.