Officials to check if code violations a factor in fatal blaze


As a makeshift shrine of toys and stuffed animals grew at the Amity Street rowhouse where three children and their grandmother died in a weekend fire, Baltimore housing officials planned today to begin investigating whether code violations contributed to the blaze.

A fourth sibling, 10-year-old Dominique Derrico, remained in critical condition last night at Johns Hopkins Hospital with severe burns.

Lily-Bell Posley, 53, and her grandchildren, Shydeim Scott, 2; Nyjerra McCray, 4; and Marquan Williams, 6, were pronounced dead Saturday at the Maryland Shock-Trauma Center.

Counselors are to arrive this morning at James McHenry Elementary School, where Dominique is a fourth-grader and Marquan attended kindergarten, to help their classmates cope with the tragedy.

The fire began early Saturday in a rowhouse without electricity in the Poppleton neighborhood. It apparently started when a candle that was being used for light toppled over, fire officials said.

While neighbors questioned how the family could live in a home without electricity, city officials promised yesterday to do more to get the word out about programs that can help the poor pay electric bills.

"There is no excuse for anyone in Baltimore City to live without electricity," Housing Authority spokesman Zack Germroth said. "There is a lot of help out there. A lot of program possibilities."

After the fire, housing officials and representatives from Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. walked throughout the neighborhood looking for others who might be living in homes without electricity and telling residents that help is available for those having trouble paying their utility bills.

Housing officials were expected to meet with BGE representatives and Mayor Martin O'Malley's press secretary to learn more about how the family had come to live in the house that had been without power nearly a year.

"It should serve as a wake-up call," said Tony White, the mayor's spokesman. "There are a number of people that do without basic services that we take for granted."

But the fire will not change plans to close the fire station at South Carey and East Baltimore Street, 10 blocks from where the blaze occurred, White said. Rescue units arrived on the scene three minutes after receiving the 911 call at 4:15 a.m. Saturday and were not from the station scheduled to be closed to save money, he said.

Fire officials said the fire broke out in the narrow blue rowhouse at 129 N. Amity St. shortly after 4 a.m. Saturday and quickly engulfed the second and third floors. There were no smoke detectors in the house, fire officials said. Locked bars on the second-floor windows hampered firefighters' efforts to reach the victims, White said.

The fire was extinguished in 15 minutes, but it was too late for the victims.

The children's mother, whose identify has not been released and who could not be reached yesterday, was not home at the time of the fire. Neighbors said the grandmother was visiting at the house.

According to BGE, the home had been without electric service for nearly a year, although Posley's family had lived there only a few months.

Yesterday, charred mattresses and clothing lay in front of the house, while friends and neighbors turned the steps of the home into a shrine of teddy bears and toys.

"They were good little kids," said Robert Lee Dunham, a neighbor whose grandchildren played with the victims. "I knew they didn't have lights," he said. "They could have got help."

Helen E. Resop, principal of James McHenry Elementary, said Dominique and Marquan had enrolled in February. Teachers had "no idea" that the family was living without electricity, she said.

"They were both very, very nice children and well-liked by the other children," she said.

Counselors will be at the school today to talk with children about the accident, she said. Last year, a fifth-grader at the school died in similar circumstances, in a fire in a house without electricity.

The school also plans to distribute information to parents this week at end-of-school-year meetings and events to let them know help is available to pay utility bills.

Germroth of the Housing Authority said officials would try today to determine who owned the house, who was responsible for paying the electric bills and whether code violations contributed to the deaths.

At least three programs exist to help people pay their electric bills, BGE spokeswoman Brenda Pettigrewsaid.

Residents can work out payment plans with the utility company, which sets aside $11 million a year to help low-income residents. The Fuel Fund of Central Maryland and the Maryland Energy Assistance Program also offer help.

Pettigrew said BGE has become more aggressive in cutting off electricity but said the stance makes it easier for residents to get their power turned back on because their debts are smaller.

"Customers must communicate with us before services are turned off so we can make adequate referrals," she said.

She said no one in Posley's family had contacted BGE about payment problems.

"We don't know how it happened," Pettigrew said.

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