Delayn Partlow had a question.
Looking at the empty seat beside him, Delayn put up his hand yesterday morning at Hilton Elementary School. He wanted to know whether his friend, Siedah Fields, 5, was coming to school.
No, replied Patricia Barrett, the children's kindergarten teacher. Speaking quietly but clearly, Barrett told Delayn and the rest of the class that Siedah would not be coming back because she had died in a fire.
"At first he just looked at me," Barrett recalled later, "and then his eyes teared and he started to cry."
Siedah and her two brothers, Elijah, 13, and Sadik, 8, perished in the blaze Friday at their home in Northwest Baltimore. The older child was pronounced dead at the scene; the two younger ones were taken to Sinai Hospital, where they died later Friday night.
Their parents, Elijah Fields and Toni Johnson, who have two other children, were not at home at the time of the fire.
The children's father is distraught that he did not save the youngsters, said Cynthia Conaway, a cousin of the family who was Sadik's second-grade teacher last year at Hilton Elementary.
"The father is devastated - he feels he failed his children," Conaway said. "He's the kind of father who didn't want his children walking home alone, and he was always here to pick them up. He came to all the programs. He helped them with their homework. This was the only time he left them."
A shrine of stuffed animals decorated the steps at the family home on Springdale Avenue yesterday. Several had tumbled down, propelled by a brisk breeze. A cluster of balloons was tied to the white metal screen door - on one, someone wrote in felt tip: "Ya'll we be miss."
There was little exterior damage to the house, although closer observation revealed melted, blackened aluminum siding around upstairs windows. Broken glass littered the ground. Some windows were boarded, and others had been covered with plastic sheeting that crackled in the wind. In the fenced backyard, a dog named Big Black barked almost incessantly.
"He wants the kids," said Keesha Singleton, another cousin, who had stopped by after hearing of the tragedy.
Ralph Herndon, who described himself as the children's maternal grandfather by marriage, said of the children's parents, "I can't say they're doing fine or well. They're doing the best they can about standing up right now."
As he spoke on the sidewalk outside the house, Herndon took calls on his cell phone about plans for the children's funeral, which is to take place at 11 a.m. tomorrow at City Temple of Baltimore.
"They were always together," he said. "You couldn't separate them. They play together, they go to school together, they're computer-literate together."
The older child, Elijah, who attended Garrison Middle School, was particularly protective of his younger siblings and "wouldn't go 10 feet without knowing where they were," Herndon said. "It wasn't three children - it was always a unit of one."
He said the children had been very much involved in helping their father fix up the house, which was in the process of being renovated when it burned. Each child, Herndon said, had specific ideas for the decor of his or her room - and made them known.
Herndon, who trained as an emergency medical technician, used the occasion of meeting a reporter to thank city firefighters for trying to save the children, even if they were not successful.
On Saturday, Steven Davis, a neighbor of the Fields', told The Sun that he had run over to their house when he saw smoke billowing from it and found the front and side doors locked. "I heard the older boy yelling, 'Help me, help me,' " said Davis, who later watched as the children were taken from the building. The cause of the fire has not been determined, said Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the city Fire Department.
At Hilton Elementary, which has 273 students, Principal Sonya Goodwyn-Askew received a group of grief counselors, sent over by the school district, in the brightly lit front office, where yellow walls are decorated with plaques celebrating the students' academic progress.
"We're very conscious of the fact that children grieve differently from adults," Goodwyn-Askew said during a break. "Some students are aware of what happened; some are not. Everyone is quiet, so we're not sure what they're thinking. Adults are more expressive, so some of them are having a hard time."
The younger Fields children's two teachers in particular "are having a difficult time holding it together," Goodwyn-Askew said. "They see them every day, five days a week."
The principal described both children as "excellent students" who always behaved well. When she became principal at the beginning of the school year in September, Goodwyn-Askew said, she addressed a small group of pupils as a way of getting to know them.
When she came to the third-grade boys, Sadik stood and told her, "'I'm a good boy, and I'm never in trouble,'" she recalled, laughing. "He wanted me to know that he was the ideal student. I said to the other boys, 'You should model yourselves after him.' They actually agreed. He was well-liked by his classmates."
The children will be officially remembered in the school with some sort of dedication, Goodwyn-Askew said, perhaps by naming the cafeteria or another room after them. "We're definitely not going to let their memories fade away," she said.
Barrett, Siedah's kindergarten teacher, said the girl was "a lovable child."
"She was willing to help the other children," Barrett said, her eyes misting. "When another child couldn't find a page in a book, she was there to help."
Siedah, Delayn and a third child were "best friends" who often teamed up "to put everyone else's notebooks in their cubbies for them," Barrett said.
When she told the class that Siedah had died, Barrett said, one child asked why God had taken her now.
"Well," Barrett said in reply, "we cannot pick and choose the day that he's going to come and take us."