Neighbors in the leafy Bel Air community known as the Villages of Thomas Run normally gather on the front porches and trim lawns of their townhouses to chitchat or watch their children skateboard, not to stand vigil.
But yesterday, they huddled and spoke in hushed tones as they grimly waited for investigators to search the smoldering wreckage of a mysterious fire for the body of a 5-year-old girl who had been spending a summer night with cousins.
When investigators found a child's remains 10 hours after the fire broke out, the discovery confirmed the worst fears of a community so protective of its young that mothers regularly install signs and plant traffic cones in the street to protect playful kids from passing cars.
"It's sad. It's devastating," said Angelina Clancy, a mother of four boys who ran around the neighborhood's grassy square with the girl.
Authorities said it was too early to tell the cause of the three-alarm fire, which neighbors said spewed billowing smoke and sent flames 20 feet above the roofs of a row of two-story townhouses in the 1800 block of Queen Anne Square.
The blaze, reported about 2:15 a.m., moved so quickly that arriving firefighters faced walls of flame spilling from the front and back of the house that prevented them from attempting to rescue the girl, Deputy Fire Marshal Howard Ewing said.
The girl's aunt, a 23-year-old, escaped with her two children, Ewing said. She suffered burns to her face, chest and hands and was in critical condition at Johns Hopkins Bayview Center in Baltimore, Ewing said.
Her two daughters, ages 7 and 3, are in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Johns Hopkins University Hospital with injuries that are not life-threatening, Ewing said.
Authorities did not identify the victims yesterday. Property records on the Web site of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation identify the owner of the house as Sherry L. Marshall.
While investigators have not determined the cause of the blaze, Ewing noted that the townhouse was built in 1989, three years before a July 1992 state law required contractors build townhouses with sprinklers.
"This is a real tragedy here," Ewing said. "Just the thought of there being a child in that building has emotions running wild."
The 5-year-old girl had been spending the night with her cousins, Ewing said. While residents did not know her well, they recalled her, her cousins and other children from the neighborhood playing with dolls, a red wagon and other toys.
As investigators razed the acrid wreckage in search of the girl's remains, somber residents debated whether - and how - to explain the death to their children.
Joan Mellott, an elderly resident in the neighborhood of many young families, said she heard crackling noises about 1:30 a.m., but did not look outside until 45 minutes later, when flames were hurtling 20 feet high from the roof.
Jeanine Sawyer said she stepped outside her townhouse down the street to find flames leaping high into the air and smoke all around. "You were like in a fog," she said.
After flames reached outside the building, the fire spread to adjoining townhouses, Ewing said. He said two unidentified young men leaving a friend's house nearby alerted families in the units near to the fire.
The Red Cross is finding housing for the two displaced families whose townhouses were destroyed, Ewing said. Four other families lost power. Investigators estimate the damage at $1 million.
Meanwhile, the remains of the child that found in the ruins were taken to the state medical examiner's office for confirmation that it was the 5-year-old girl.