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Five are killed in Harford house fire

Three generations lived in the century-old wooden house with two chimneys in Harford County. Jerome Shropshire, a retired steelworker, and his wife, Annette, a homemaker, took care of their four young grandchildren while their daughter worked at a nearby supermarket and attended college classes.

"He loved [the] children more than he loved himself," Joseph Shropshire Sr. said of his elder brother's bond with the grandchildren. "Wherever he went, they went."

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But a fire that started yesterday morning quickly spread and engulfed the Abingdon house, killing Shropshire, 72, and four others: a woman in her 60s, two preschool-age boys, and an 8-month-old girl, fire officials said. Investigators located the fifth body - that of one of the boys - about 8:45 last night.

Other than Shropshire, fire officials had not confirmed the identities of the victims, pending forensic examination.

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"This is a difficult day for the community," said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor.

People trapped

At 10:22 a.m., firefighters received several calls that a residence in the 3400 block of Philadelphia Road had caught fire and people were trapped inside, fire officials said. About 65 firefighters from six volunteer companies in Harford County responded and brought the fire under control in 30 minutes.

The house was destroyed, with damage estimated at $200,000, Taylor said. As of late last night, investigators had not determined what caused the fire or where it began.

"We have to continue to take our time and keep looking for a cause," Taylor said. "We are working with family members and not ruling out anything."

Harford County sheriff's deputies arrived before the fire crews and pulled Jerome Shropshire from the back of the building, said Dave Williams, a spokesman for the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association.

Shropshire was taken by ambulance to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, where he was pronounced dead.

The other victims were found on the second floor - one in the hallway and the others in bedrooms, including one where the metal frame of a bunk bed stood against the remains of a wall after the blaze had been extinguished. The yard was filled with riding toys, a swing set and two sliding boards. A large doghouse sat under a towering tree.

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As firefighters battled the blaze, dozens of stunned neighbors and others gathered nearby.

Next-door neighbor Richard Lentini was returning from the post office when he saw flames on the first floor of the house and smoke engulfing the second floor, he said.

He quickly called 911.

'Terrible heat'

"Sparks were flying into my driveway," Lentini said. "The whole side of his house, even the fence were in flames. I could feel the terrible heat. My hands and face were red. I thought my house was going, too."

Heat from the blaze damaged the vinyl siding on Lentini's home.

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Several firefighters trying to enter the burning home yelled, "I can't get in!" Lentini said.

Lentini's wife, Barbara, feared the worst because two cars parked in the yard suggested family members were in the house. She said the scene was a familiar one: She had been in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I know how fast fire and smoke can travel," she said. "I knew when I saw those flames today that this was bad."

A 6-year-old girl who lived in the house was in school at nearby William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary at the time of the fire. Deputy Fire Marshal Joseph Zurolo picked up the child from school and took her to a nearby funeral home where the family had gathered.

"I took her the long way around, so that she would not see her house," he said.

'Everyone perished'

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Throughout the day, Zurolo served as a liaison to the family. When a relative arrived, he escorted them to the funeral home and provided updates on the investigation.

"They are aware early on that everyone had perished," Zurolo said.

The mother of the young victims was attending college classes at the time of the fire.

No smoke detector

Fire officials said there was no evidence that the home had working smoke detectors. Taylor said that one detector, still in its original box, was found amid the ruins.

It was the first multifatality fire in Harford County in several years, Taylor said, and the first fatal blaze of any kind there since 2005.

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The fire ranks among the deadliest in the region's recent history. Seven members of one family were killed in a 2002 arson in Baltimore that sparked national outrage. In 1994, nine people, including seven children, died in a West Baltimore fire started by a candle. Also that year, a fire blamed on clothing piled on a heating grate killed seven.

In 1982, 10 people died in a fire in the city's Clifton Park neighborhood after a candle ignited a sofa. A year later, eight perished in a fire in the city blamed on careless smoking.

While the recovery effort continued at the Shropshire house, the Lentinis remembered neighbors with whom they had enjoyed an easy coexistence.

Talk over the fence

"These were quiet neighbors who never bothered anybody," Barbara Lentini said. "Mr. Shropshire was a friendly old gentleman. We often talked over the fence."

The Shropshire house, which dates to 1900, according to property records, was warmed in the winter by a heat pump, said Shropshire's brother, Joseph, a Baltimore resident. The family also used space heaters, he said.

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A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Shropshire bought the four-bedroom house because he longed for rural life, his brother said.

"We come from the country and he always said he was going back to the country and that's where he went," he said.

After retiring from Bethlehem Steel more than 20 years ago, Jerome Shropshire was devoted to spending time with his wife, seven children and 41 grandchildren.

"I saw him last week," his brother said. "We sat around talking and went out together. He was enjoying his retirement, going to Atlantic City with his wife, just living his life."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com julie.scharper@baltsun.com nicholas.shields@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Gina Davis contributed to this article.


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