Fire inquiry may take weeks

The Baltimore Sun

As plans were completed for the first funeral yesterday, investigators struggled to pinpoint the cause of the fire that killed six people in a crowded East Baltimore rowhouse, in part because of the intensity of the blaze and way it ravaged the structure in a matter of minutes.

"This investigation is very complex, if no other reason, the number of victims and the amount of damage that was done," said Theodore G. Saunders, the Fire Department's deputy chief of administration.

"This complicates things and slows the process down," he said. "This one could very easily take weeks. [The fire investigator is] still in the process of piecing together who was where and what they saw, and at the same time looking at all the potential causes."

Fire officials have ruled out arson as a cause, and they think the fire began in a front room on the first floor, where the most severe damage was found. A source close to the investigation has said that investigators are focusing on a couch and the possibility that the fire was started by someone who had been smoking.

Relatives have said that one of the dead, William C. Hyman, 64, slept on that couch because a medical condition prevented him from climbing stairs. Fire officials would not confirm that. Danielle Davis, a relative, said yesterday that Hyman smoked.

Further complicating the investigation, Saunders said, is that many of the victims are dead or incapacitated, and are not able to provide investigators with their version of events.

Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday that she had visited the Cecil Avenue rowhouse and spoken with family members and neighbors.

"It is very clear that there's a lot of pain in that neighborhood, but there is also a lot of resources that is needed in that community," she said.

"The city will do everything to help."

Victor March of March Funeral Home on East North Avenue said that a funeral for Marquis Ellis, 7, is planned for Tuesday at Israel Baptist Church on North Washington Street. He said the boy is the only victim who has been positively identified. The dead were burned beyond recognition, and six bodies were still at the medical examiner's office yesterday.

Family members said they would like to have one funeral service for all six victims. The other four occupants who died have been identified by relatives and a church pastor as Tashon Thomas, 16, Davonte Witherspoon, 13, Melvin Beckett, 13, and Nijuan Thomas Jr., 3.

"I don't think our family could handle it separately," said Davis. Her sister Deneen Thomas, 43, who was known as "Miss Nina," remains in an induced coma at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, suffering from second- and third-degree burns to more than half of her body.

"That would mean we would have to keep going to funerals," she said. "We're holding on. But I don't think we're that strong right now."

Survivor Dominic Thompson, a nephew of Deneen Thomas whose age was unknown, was released yesterday from Maryland Shock Trauma Center, a hospital spokesman said. Chriseria A. Thomas, 20, was in good condition at Bayview and could be released as early as today or tomorrow, Davis said.

Chriseria Thomas' daughter Aniya Williams, 4, was released from the hospital the day of the fire and is being cared for by her paternal grandfather. Her other daughter, Amira Williams, 3, is suffering from burns to more than 90 percent of her body and remains in critical condition at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center's pediatric intensive care unit.

Rodney Alston, 30, a former boyfriend of a niece of Deneen Thomas, was discharged from Bayview on Wednesday. Oneika Ellis, 27, the girlfriend of Dominic Thompson, remained in good condition at Bayview yesterday.

Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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