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Rowhouse fire claims life of girl, 3


A 3-year-old girl was killed in a fire in Southeast Baltimore yesterday morning that began in the basement of the rowhouse where she was apparently sleeping.

Nicole Austin's body was found by firefighters about 8 a.m., after a neighbor in an adjoining home noticed smoke in her own basement in the 600 block of S. Oldham St. Firefighters tried to resuscitate the toddler, but she was pronounced dead at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"My puppy made us aware of the fire," said Shelly Heinze, 32, who called the Fire Department at 7:44 a.m. "He sleeps in the basement and woke me up, barking. I went downstairs and smelled smoke. My nose led me to the basement, where the smoke was coming through the wall."

Heinze's fiance, Jeff Padgett, rushed into the burning building and alerted neighbors about the fire. Nicole's father, Joseph Austin, and a tenant who lived on the top floor of the two-story rowhouse, 41-year-old Ruth Flores, were rescued. The fire was brought under control at 8:03 a.m.

"His hair and beard were singed," Padgett said of Joseph Austin, who went to the hospital with his daughter. A neighbor was also taken by ambulance to Bayview, where she was treated for an asthma attack.

City housing officials were helping to find temporary shelter for Flores, who was not injured.

Fire officials said a smoke detector on the first floor lacked a battery. It was not clear whether there was a smoke detector in the basement. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

"We're still investigating the circumstances," Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said. "The fire never spread out of the basement area, but the smoke permeated the house. That's probably what killed the little girl."

The basement had a kitchen and was apparently used as a sleeping area, Torres said.

Nicole was the fifth child to die in a fire in the city this summer. Four children and their grandmother were killed last month when flames swept through their West Baltimore rowhouse. That home had no smoke detectors.

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