Three Dead in Early Morning Baltimore Blaze

March 01--Two young children and a man died as a two-alarm fire swept through their Curtis Bay home early Saturday morning. A woman, whom neighbors said was the children's mother, is in critical condition after jumping from a second-story window.

Neighbors in the 4100 block of Grace Court described a chaotic scene after the fire broke out around 4 a.m. Some faulted the response of the fire department, saying units took too long to arrive on the scene. They said firefighters did not show a sense of urgency until the woman, who had escaped by the time they arrived, told them children were trapped inside. Baltimore fire department spokesman Ian Brennan defended the department's response and said the first fire engine arrived in three minutes.

The victims have not yet been identified, but neighbors said they were a girl about 5 years old who attended nearby Curtis Bay Elementary School and a boy about 18 months old. The man killed was their father, who died trying to save his girlfriend and their children, neighbors said. Brennan said the woman who escaped was taken to the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center.

Nathaniel Faison, who lives on the same block, said he was awakened around 4 a.m. by the sound of yelling. As he looked out of his window, he said he saw smoke coming from his neighbor's house and ran outside, calling 911 at 4:02 a.m.

The children's father, whom Faison knows as "Chop," was at the second-story window of the home, nudging his girlfriend, who was frozen in fear, to jump out, Faison said. After she jumped to the ground, the father's brother, who lives across the street, yelled at him to jump as well, but Chop disappeared back into the house, presumably to rescue his children, Faison said.

"He could have gotten out safely, but he went back for his kids, so in my mind he's a hero," Faison said. His neighbor, Faison said, "was a good guy, a good father, a good boyfriend. He worked for his family, and the kids always had smiles on their faces."

Faison and other neighbors said police officers arrived quickly and were there first, and that some officers tried to break down the door of the house. But Faison said it took "20 minutes" for the first engine to arrive, and that the firefighters unrolled a hose and went back to their truck and started talking, only moving more quickly to fight the fire once they were told that children were inside.

Brennan said the 911 call was dispatched at 4:05 a.m. and that Engine 57, which is stationed at a fire house a third of a mile away, arrived at 4:08.

"I understand that when someone is on the scene, 10 seconds feels like a minute and a minute feels like an hour," Brennan said. "I can't speak to what people say they saw. I don't have any indication that [firefighters] did anything other than their job."

Flames had spread to both floors when firefighters arrived, Brennan said, and the cause of the fire and whether the home had working smoke detectors is under investigation. Adjacent houses were severely damaged by smoke, fire and water and those residents were awaiting the arrival of a building inspector.

"The firefighters attacked it as aggressively as we could but sadly we couldn't save the three victims," Brennan said. The fire department may open an investigation into the response if a formal complaint is filed, Brennan said.

Neighbor Robin Gwin was crying as she watched firefighters work on the scene a few hours after the fire began. She woke up about an hour after the fire began but was upset about what her neighbors that witnessed the situation told her.

"Those kids were like my grandchildren," she said as her own children hugged her. "Are you kidding me?"

Gwin said firefighters told her the fire started in the home's kitchen, and she suspects it may have started with a faulty electrical system there. "Every time you go to plug something up, it would blow the breakers in the house," she said.

Faison's wife, Autumn, said she stayed with the children's mother after she had jumped to the ground, and later went to grab warm clothing for her before the ambulance arrived.

"She wanted to go back in there," Autumn Faison said. "When she left she didn't even know if they made it or not."

Another neighbor, Julius Trueheart, said he was hanging out with the young couple in their house until about 3 a.m. Saturday, and that they were celebrating the birthday of the children's mother. Trueheart said he visited the young couple and their children often, as his daughter was born six days apart from the baby boy who died in the fire. The couple were in their early 20s and the father worked at a sporting goods store and the mother at a travel agency, he said.

On the street, he paged through a photo album from his daughter's birthday, pointing out the three victims and their mother among the party guests.

"It don't feel real," Trueheart said.

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