Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Death toll in city fire now up to 8

The Baltimore Sun

Six died that day. Another life was lost last week. And early yesterday morning, just hours before her father, her two young sons and her nephew were finally laid to rest after a rousing church service, Deneen Thomas died in her hospital bed.

Now it is eight.

Eight dead in one of the worst fires in Baltimore. In minutes, the May 22 blaze ripped through the East Baltimore rowhouse at 1903 Cecil Ave., where at least 13 people lived - part of a large extended family that included four generations.

Thomas, 43, known as "Miss Nina" - the matriarch of the family who opened her home to everyone who needed a place to stay - died at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. She had been there since the day of the fire, mostly in a coma, suffering from severe burns over more than half her body. A hospital spokeswoman confirmed her death.

"She died on her own," said Tiffany Howard, a cousin, who has served as a family spokeswoman. "We got a call at 4 a.m. this morning."

Thomas' death was announced as hundreds of people gathered at Israel Baptist Church in Middle East for the funeral services for her father, William C. Hyman, 66; two of her sons, Tashon R. Thomas, 16, and Da Vonta C. Witherspoon, 13; and her nephew, Dominic A. Thompson, 29.

The family had wanted to mourn everyone at once. But the funerals have been slow to come. Many of the victims were badly burned, and it took 10 days for the state medical examiner to identify all of the dead.

In separate services last week, two of the youngest victims, Nijuan L. Thomas Jr., 3, and MarQuis D. Ellis, 7, were laid to rest. Melvin L. Beckett, 13, a family friend, also died. MarQuis' mother, Oneika Ellis, 27, remains hospitalized. Amira Williams, 1, is in critical condition.

The cause of the fire has not been made public, but a source close to the investigation has said officials believe the blaze was likely caused by a person smoking on a couch in a front room.

At the start of yesterday's service, an organist played as mourners streamed down the middle aisle of the church toward the bodies of the three young men lying in gleaming silver caskets, topped with bunches of white and baby blue carnations. The remains of Hyman, who had been cremated, were in a large gold-colored urn.

Women sobbed before the caskets. Some laid their hands on them. Young boys and grown men wore oversized white T-shirts bearing a montage of the victims' photographs. One asked in large black letters: "Why?"

The Rev. William Stool acknowledged the sadness but exhorted the mourners to extend themselves to God and to each other.

"We know that there's hurt, and we know that there's pain, but there's Jesus," Stool shouted into a microphone as mourners stood, cheering and clapping. "I know this hurts. It's a sad, sad situation. When we look at what we have here. ... I don't know why it happened. I can't question the Lord, but what I know right now is we're here to comfort one another."

Short obituaries, circulated before the service, revealed details of the victims' lives.

Hyman, who was called "Curt," was born in Richmond, Va., in 1941. He worked as a driver at a rug company for 30 years.

Thompson, known as "Nick," was described as someone who "loved joking around and spending time with his family."

Tashon, who used a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis, "had a special interest in electronics and music. He especially loved to DJ family gatherings," the obituary said.

And Da Vonta, who escaped the fire and ran back in to save Tashon, was known as "Mink." The obituary said he "enjoyed playing video games and had a passion for riding bikes."

A memorial note to the victims read:

God looked around His garden and saw an empty space,

He then looked down upon this earth and saw your smiling face;

God's garden must be beautiful, He always takes the best,

For an unknown reason He took you up to heaven, and shielded you with grace.

It broke our hearts to see you go, but you did not go alone,

For part of us went with you, the day God called you home.

Lovingly submitted,

The Family

As the service drew to a close, 12 pallbearers rolled the three coffins on wheels out of the church and into the hot, heavy afternoon air. Each coffin was placed into the rear of a gold hearse, which brought them to King Memorial Park in Baltimore County. Two large buses followed the fleet of vehicles.

Across from the church on North Washington Street, Engine 6 and Medic 7 were parked. Baltimore Fire Department Battalion Chief Arnold R. Turner and five city firefighters stood against the ladder truck, one of several that arrived at the Cecil Avenue home the day of the fire. The men, who were not among those who responded to the fire that day, had sat through the service and stood to salute the dead as they were driven away.

"It was a fire disaster," Turner said. "So we've been very quickly, intimately involved with the family, so we had to extend our condolences. It's a tragedy."

As family members followed the caskets from the church, grieving women locked arms with one other and held hands. Loud sobs and wails punctuated the sound of feet shifting on the pavement.

Howard stood on the sidewalk and said: "They will surely be missed."

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