The desperate cries of children trapped by fire reached equally desperate neighbors who tried to save them. But intense heat and choking smoke forced back the would-be rescuers as flames consumed a Southwest Baltimore rowhouse yesterday, killing the tiny occupants inside.
Three children -- ages 5 months, 2 years and 3 years -- were found huddled in a second-floor front bedroom. One died at a hospital. Another was pronounced dead outside. The third died in the house.
A smoke detector in the hallway sounded, but firefighters said the mother had gone shopping and left her children alone.
"Obviously, without an adult at home, it did absolutely no good," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres.
The deaths left residents in the 2200 block of Christian St., near Wilkens Avenue, stunned and frustrated that attempts to fight ,, past the leaping flames were thwarted. "I could hear the screams inside," said Joseph Ferguson. "I kicked in the front door."
The 33-year-old neighbor got no farther than the front staircase. Others who made rescue attempts, including Southwestern District Officers Darren Belechto, David Bergun and Matthew Dzambo, also were forced back.
"Black smoke just poured out," said Arthaniel Perkins, 38, a Washington construction worker who was making repairs nearby. "You could hear the kids crying for their mother. But it was too hot and too smoky to get inside."
The dead children were identified as James Edward Ferguson, 5 months; Shaniqua Ferguson, 2; and Edward Ferguson, 3. Fire officials identified their mother as Karen Johnson but could not -- provide her age.
Torres said firefighters arrived about 11 a.m. and quickly reached the children. He said James apparently "had a shot at survival" and was rushed to nearby St. Agnes Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Firefighters carried Shaniqua to an ambulance, where she died. Edward was pronounced dead in the house. His body was
carried out past mourners in the street, including Perkins, who crouched in a doorway across the street and buried his head in his hands.
Police, Fire Department arson investigators and federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms came to the scene, a routine response for a fatal fire.
Officials said there didn't appear to be anything suspicious, but Torres said that finding a cause "may take a while because of the destruction." Investigators removed the kitchen stove, and Torres said it will be tested for a possible electrical malfunction. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said it turned off power to the house in July and that any electricity was coming from a makeshift hook-up.
Police detectives said they interviewed the victims' mother but had not decided whether to file charges. It is illegal to leave children younger than age 8 alone.
Buddy McCready, 37, said he and other neighbors saw the mother walking to the store. "When she came back, her house was on fire," he said. Torres confirmed that but said investigators did not know how long the children were left by themselves.
Joseph Ferguson, who is not related to the children, said Johnson had headed for the Westside Shopping Center on Frederick Avenue but returned when she saw smoke. He said that as he and others tried to get inside the home, the mother "was hysterical, screaming, 'I just went to the store.' "
The children's grandmother, Clara Johnson, 47, said her daughter had called her and said she had to walk to a store to pay a bill, and asked whether her mother could watch her children. Johnson said she was putting on her coat when a boy knocked on her door and told her of the fire.
"I usually keep an eye on the kids when my daughter can't," Johnson said. "I was heading over there. The children were only alone for five or 10 minutes."
Despite the sometimes heavy rain, onlookers packed the narrow street as firefighters cleaned up debris and police interviewed witnesses. Charred household items, including a table and a stroller, were piled up in front of the burned house.
After learning that the three deaths had been confirmed, Ferguson leaned against a rowhouse across the street and sighed.
"Lord, we tried," he said, recalling his rescue attempts. "I was just thinking of my own child. I would want my neighbors to try and save her. That's what neighbors are for, to help out in a tragedy."
Pub Date: 5/09/98