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Fire destroys city rowhouse 7 jump to safety; Incident investigated as a possible arson; laboratory tests scheduled


A fast-moving fire that destroyed a Baltimore rowhouse yesterday and forced a mother and her six children to jump from second-story windows is being investigated as a possible arson.

Agent Angelique Cook-Hayes, a police spokeswoman, said the fire, which started in the kitchen, was ruled incendiary, meaning it was set, but has not been officially declared an arson, which suggests criminal intent.

Police investigators said they have no suspects, and will have to wait for laboratory tests to determine whether an accelerant, such as gasoline, was poured in the home in the Harwood neighborhood and ignited.

The mother, Dorinda Carter, 34, cut her arm on the ground when she jumped to safety from a second-floor bedroom window of the house in the 400 block of E. Lorraine Ave., off Greenmount Avenue. She was treated at the scene.

Fire officials said the children, who range in age from 6 to 14, were not hurt. Neighbors said some jumped from the second floor into the arms of an anonymous bystander who heard Carter scream for help and rushed to the burning house.

Demetria Dyer, 32, who lives next door to Carter, said she woke up to the cries and saw a man catch two of the children out front. "She was screaming, 'Help, please help, my house is on fire,' " Dyer said.

Four other children jumped from back windows onto a terrace roof. Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames, but could not save the dwelling. Damage was estimated at $28,000.

"Those people were blessed," said Juanita Watkins, who lives across the street from the fire and is the secretary of Harwood Community Association. "God was with them, and he made it so nobody got hurt. Otherwise, nobody would have gotten out of there."

Cook-Hayes said the fire was reported about 6 a.m.

Fire officials declined to comment on a possible cause. But they confirmed that the department's new dog, Mollie, was on the scene sniffing for possible accelerants and other evidence.

"What has been found at this point remains under investigation," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, Fire Department spokesman. "All possibilities are being considered. We're not ruling anything out at this point."

Torres said the house had no utilities officially hooked up, but he said it appeared the flames were fed by natural gas from a meter in the basement.

David Austin, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spokesman, said his company shut off gas to the house Oct. 1 because a previous tenant was behind on payments. He said Carter never called to set up her account.

Austin said workers returned to the house Nov. 10 to terminate electric service for the same reason, and found the gas service on. "There was still no customer of record, and we terminated both [services] at that time."

Workers discovered yesterday that the gas had again been turned on and was being used by residents -- a practice Austin described as dangerous. Whether that contributed to the fire is under investigation, officials said.

Neighbors said Carter and her children moved into the house last year. On Oct. 9, Kathy Smith of Camden Management Services on Eastern Avenue sold the property to Carey Pauley of Purcellville, Va.

Pauley said the house was never vacant, and he had received rent checks of $605 each for the past two months, from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's Section 8 assistance program. He said he was unaware the four-bedroom house lacked proper utilities.

Pauley said he would call the Red Cross and arrange for Carter and her family to stay at another one of his properties in the city.

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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