Angela Dawson and her family spent much of their last days locked in the house, knowing someone was out to get them. Then, like a foreordained tragedy unfolding with pitiless momentum, it happened. Caskets were ordered in three sizes -- adult, teen, child.

Baltimore buried its dead last month and vowed never to get over the hurt. There were two funerals, two slow-motion processions arriving at seven graves.

One family. Wiped out. On purpose.

The end was fire and a mother screaming.

Except there wasn't a single fire, there was a pair of fires. As if death foreshadowed itself.

Angela Dawson extinguished the first fire after a Molotov cocktail crashed through her kitchen window at 2 or 2:30 on the morning of Oct. 3. She had made dozens of calls to police in the last year complaining about drug activity in her East Baltimore neighborhood. On previous occasions bricks had smashed through her window.

Police stepped up patrols and prosecutors offered to put the family in a witness protection program. Angela and her husband, Carnell, first said they didn't want to be driven by thugs from a home they loved. Then they began to reconsider.

They were still reconsidering two weeks later, at 2:18 on the morning of Oct. 16, when someone kicked in the front door, splashed gasoline around -- paying close attention to the staircase, the only escape route from the upstairs bedrooms -- and lit the second fire. Angela, 36, Carnell, 43, Lawanda Ortiz, 14, Juan Ortiz, 12, Carnell Jr., 10, and the twins Kevin and Keith, 9, were in their rooms on the second and third floors.

The three-story rowhouse went up like kindling. Fire shot out the windows and the roof.

Several neighbors said they heard a mother's anguished cries.

"God, please help me. Help me get my children out."

Carnell Sr. leapt from a second-floor window. He suffered broken bones and burns over half his body. He lived a week but never regained consciousness.

The day after the fire, police arrested a young man who lived across the street, Darrell Brooks, 21, and charged him with murder and arson.

The entire city crawled into that tortured space of emotional exile usually occupied by next of kin. Baltimore had to sort through feelings of outrage, grief, guilt. Could we have done anything to prevent this?

At the funerals and the street rallies -- there were several -- preachers and politicians prefaced their oratory by saying they had struggled to find the right words. Speechmakers often say that. This time, it might have been true. Sometimes horror is so deep, so complete, so unspeakable, it attains an awful perfection. Perfect horror. What meaning can be wrung from perfect horror?

"I've never seen anything like this in my entire career," said Edward Norris, the police commissioner.

"This is our moment of crisis," said Mayor Martin O'Malley.

In death, the Dawsons became larger than life. Angela was described as a Rosa Parks of the drug war. Carnell was called a hero. The children were likened to the four girls killed when Ku Klux Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. White House drug czar John Walters compared the Dawsons to the biblical Daniel, who refused to bow down before a false god.

But depending on how you looked, the Dawsons also could be a symbol of failure in the war to save the American city from drugs and violence. Who will call the police now?

The perpetrator has become a symbol, too, the relentless Enemy in a stalemated campaign against urban terrorism.

But real people are more complicated than symbols, containing signs of both strength and weakness.

After the fire, posters started appearing in windows around town: "The Dawsons Live Here."

Just Off Eden

The Dawsons lived in Oliver, a 64-square-block neighborhood northeast of downtown. It is a neighborhood of contrast and contradiction: Vacant brick shells and liquor stores vie with neat Formstone refuges and still-magnificent churches.

In a city where 1 in 10 adults is addicted to drugs, Oliver has more than its share of problems. But it is not the city's worst neighborhood. Turn a corner and 30 children are frolicking on a pristine playground. In an alley next door is a graffiti homage to a young man who died with a bottle in one hand and a blazing gun in the other -- "R.I.P."

Such are the juxtapositions in a thousand neighborhoods across urban America, hope abiding amid despair, the future up for grabs. These homes were built a century ago for workers in Baltimore's factories. When the manufacturing jobs left, so did many of the people, and a multimillion-dollar drug economy settled in.

What's on the corner can set the tone for a block. Three corners in succession: A church. A liquor store. The Dawson home, where East Preston Street crosses North Eden Street. On their block of Preston, eight of 20 homes are boarded up. On Eden, 10 of 23.

Corners are also where drug dealers like to set up shop.

No surprise, perhaps, that Angela Dawson became an outspoken antagonist of the corner boys. She was playing the mother bear even before she became a mother.

Her brother John Harrington Jr., a Maryland corrections officer three years her junior, remembers how growing up in East Baltimore he felt safe from getting picked on. "I knew my sister was tough," he says.

Her younger sister, Davida Golden, recalls once when they were adults, and a male friend treated Davida roughly in Angela's presence. Golden recalled, "She shoved him so hard."

Angela went out of her way to be supportive, Harrington said. "She would go on and on and just build you up."

Angela dropped out of high school and had a daughter by 19. (That daughter, Lakeesha Bowell, was not in the house at the time of the fire.) Angela had two more children, Lawanda and Juan, with another man, then moved to the suburbs, to Severn, where she became acquainted with a genial man just arrived from small-town Oklahoma.

Growing up in Bristow, population 4,325, Carnell spent his early days reluctant to settle down. He fathered daughters with two girlfriends. He remained friends with the mothers and in close touch with his daughters.

He was a charmer and a comedian, popular wherever he went, but a "prodigal son" in the eyes of his big sister, Alice, who knew how smart he was and kept at him to do great things. He was a jack of all trades, traveled a bit, did a stint in the Army. When he was about 20, friends were fooling around with a sawed-off shotgun in the car he was driving. The weapon went off. The blast ripped through the driver's seat and shredded Dawson's insides. Miraculously, he recovered.

He began to think seriously of the future several years later when his younger brother Mark was shot to death. At Mark's funeral, Dawson asked his sister, by then married and living in Severn, if he could live with her, to get a fresh start.

That was about 1990. He met Angela in the neighborhood and soon Car and Angel -- the pet names they gave each other -- moved in together not far from Preston and Eden. They were together till the end, raising Lakeesha, Lawanda and Juan, who were soon followed by Carnell Jr., Kevin and Keith.

"He didn't grow to become a man when I wanted him to be, he grew in his own time," his proud big sister, Alice McNack, told mourners at his funeral.

Four years ago, without telling anyone, Angel and Car got married on New Year's Eve. Last year a few days after Christmas, McNack saw them walking in Oliver, all giddy and lovey-dovey. He was 5 feet 6 inches and about 160 pounds, she was 5 feet 4 inches and more than 200 pounds.

What's going on? McNack asked, smiling. "It's our anniversary!" they exclaimed.

Family Time

On summer days, Angela would put a blue-and-white inflatable swimming pool on the Eden sidewalk. The Dawsons would climb in together and splash and laugh.

They did everything together. Barbecues. Basketball games, which Angela won. They walked to the store together -- for protection, in later days. Rode bicycles. Mornings, Angela walked the children to school. She and Carnell went to teacher conferences, Angela sometimes volunteered in her children's classrooms.

"Anytime you saw her, her kids were with her," said Tracey Colvin, a friend.

Whenever the Dawson kids passed an adult on the street, it was always Hello Miss and Mister.

Lawanda, 14, who attended middle school, told friends she wanted to study art. She was always drawing. "The only pictures she liked to draw were Lil Bow Wow or her family," said Shaina Phillips, 13, a friend.

The four boys went to elementary school. Juan, 12, was a model student who liked to help his classmates. He was part of a "reading buddy" program, where fifth-graders read books to younger children. "Juan built a special bond with his kindergarten buddy," an assistant principal said.

Carnell Jr., 10, should have been called "the professor" because he knew it all, his grandmother, Donnell Golden, was fond of saying. But he also seemed destined to become a gymnast. He'd turn back flips anytime, anywhere.

Kevin, 9, was affectionate and quiet. He was such a reader that after he died his classmates dedicated the classroom library to him.

Keith, 9, was a surprise. He didn't show up in prenatal sonograms because he was "hiding behind Kevin," Golden said. He had a slight disability, but it hardly kept him out of activities at school. He had a lot of his dad in him, charming and joshing everyone.

On the day of the second fire, somewhere in Oliver a child wrote a note on lined paper -- perhaps he, too, struggled to find the right words, for he added a crayon picture -- and placed the note with the growing pile of mementos outside the rowhouse ruins.

Today I feel sad because of what happened this morning. This morning when my mother drove me to school I looked down the street. I saw polices and firefighters. One of my poor friends died because their house caught on fire and they was trying to get out but they couldn't. Somebody jumped out of the window. All I want to say is R.I.P. Keith and we all will miss you. Sleep well. This is a picture of it.

A house on fire. Black and orange. A boy outside with big tears rolling down his cheeks.

Scraping By Life isn't easy in Oliver, even for families trying hard. And sometimes the neighborhood's contrasts and contradictions can creep into the story of a single family.

Every Wednesday and Friday afternoon on the Dawsons' block, dozens of residents line up to receive free groceries from the back of Danny Dansbury's van.

Dansbury, a retired truck driver, moved from a neighborhood in West Baltimore he considered more drug-infested and opened Danny's, a secondhand-furniture store. The groceries come from a food bank. "I wanted to do something to help," he says.

The Dawsons had moved to the corner rowhouse a few years ago. It seemed huge: four bedrooms. Rent was a few hundred dollars. They furnished it in part from Danny's. They installed an entertainment system and built up a stock of videotapes and computer games. Angela put carpet on the kitchen floor.

Angela worked on and off, but mainly she was a full-time mother. Carnell did construction work, but until recently it was always temporary. The family didn't own a car; they didn't always have a phone.

Sometimes stresses boiled over. Twice Angela was arrested for assaulting Carnell, in 1996 and in May 2001, according to court records. Carnell was charged with assaulting Angela in 1997. The May police report states that officers responded to a domestic incident, but when they got to the house, the Dawsons declared there was no problem. Then Angela started cursing the officers, and punching and kicking Carnell.

In all three cases, the couple quickly reconciled and the charges were set aside. The episodes were exceptions for a couple who "had a lot of love for each other," said Harrington, Angela's brother.

Carnell caught police attention one other time. At 4:45 p.m. last Dec. 29, just before their anniversary, officers were staking out an "infamous" drug corner a few blocks from the Dawsons' corner. They observed Carnell purchase four vials of suspected crack, their report says.

He pleaded not guilty to one count of possession and received 18 months of probation before judgment, according to court records, meaning if he stayed out of trouble for 18 months, the charge would be dismissed.

"Mr. Dawson was a good guy," said police Det. Timothy Holt. "He had some problems in the past. He was working steady, trying to be a good citizen."

The Crossroads (Then) Something Oliver needs is more steady jobs, and seven months ago Carnell found one. Chilmar/RWC put him to work refurbishing an elementary school in Dundalk.

"Carnell, he was so happy to finally get a job with a 401(k), a medical plan," said Harrington.

On the job, Carnell called himself "Country," because of his Oklahoma twang, and that became his nickname. Work was fun when he was around. He could make a joke out of anything.

"He was one of the best people I ever met," said co-worker Robert Stewart. "He was a family man. That's all he ever talked about -- his wife and his kids."

Carnell's shift was 2:30 to 11:30 p.m. His co-workers would pick him up and drop him off at the corner. They felt the hard stares of the young men loitering around Preston and Eden.

The Dawsons started having problems with characters in the neighborhood in the summer of 2001, neighbors say. After Carnell got his job, and things began looking up for them, simultaneously things in the neighborhood were deteriorating.

Police records show the Dawsons made 36 calls from late June through mid-October, alleging disorderly conduct, destruction of property, assault, drug activity.

Angela made most of the calls. And being bold and bossy Angela, she also had words with the young men she considered troublemakers.

The police "would write a report and leave," said neighbor Katie Stanbery.

Dawson relatives and some neighbors say the dealers would sit on the Dawsons' stoop and hide their drugs around the outside of the house.

Yet other neighbors say the corner wasn't that bad. "I never had no problem," said Carolyn Hickman.

Another woman who lived in the same block of Preston said it's a matter of how you talk to drug dealers. "I have went to them and asked them to move. They moved. I ain't never had no problem with it," said the 36-year-old factory worker and mother of two who declined to give her name for fear of retaliation. "I think her problem was she was coming out here and telling them she was calling the cops."

Angela refused to play by the unwritten rules of living with drug dealers, so much a part of survival in Oliver.

But neighbors directly across Eden saw it differently.

"She'd call the police on people who were doing nothing," said a 25-year-old man who said he was unemployed and would only give his first initial, P. "We'd sit on our stoop and we might have a beer or two and sometimes we're loud, but no drug activities."

Next door to that man lives a woman known as Sweetie, with the initial "S" stamped on her gold front tooth. "God as my witness, nobody stood on her steps," said Sweetie. She said she used to give Angela clothes that her children had outgrown, but she tired of Angela accusing people.

Smoldering Enmity

Pages of Carnell's and Angela's words during the last weeks of their lives are preserved in the complaints they filed in District Court.

Angela, from Aug. 23:

The defendant John L. Henry wrote on my wall Bitch. . . . I stayed outside along with my child until I could get the words off the wall. John Henry came across the street bragging about he wrote the word Bitch on the wall, and he said bitch that's why you got to clean the wall and I did it, Bitch. I said [expletive]. . . . That's when John Henry cold-cocked me.

Henry, 18, lived across Eden from the Dawsons, and is the nephew of 25-year-old Mr. P, according to Mr. P.

Aug. 25:

My husband and sons were cooking in the kitchen. A brick was thrown through the kitchen window. The glass flew and some went in my older son's eye.

Sept. 4:

My husband had just got home from work. We sat down to talk about our day & then decided to pop a VCR tape in, when a brick came through the front living room window. The brick struck me in the back. . . . I watched John L. Henry running across the street.

Henry was jailed. On Oct. 2, the charges were placed on the inactive docket and Henry was released, with the provision that he pay $275 restitution and stay away, an arrangement the Dawsons accepted, according to prosecutors. (This month the charges were dropped; the complainant -- Angela -- was deceased.)

Early the next morning as the family slept, the Molotov cocktail burst into the kitchen.

Angela:

My husband and I gathered up our babies and led them to safety. Before getting out we experienced choking from the smoke and could hardly see how to get to the door. The heat was very intense. . . . I got water trying to put out the fire. Every time I threw water on the fire it flared up even more. I finally got the fire under control and went outside with my family. . . . It was set up to kill everyone in the home. To blow my family up.

'I Have to Move'

After the fire was out but hours before the sun rose, Carnell called Robert Stewart, his buddy from work, to come over and watch his back for a few hours. "He said they had 'woken the beast in me when they tried to hurt my family,' " Stewart recalled. But also, "he was scared."

The house was placed on the "special attention" list, said Maj. Gregory Eads Sr. That meant more frequent patrols. How frequent depended on how busy police were.

The Dawsons declined the witness protection program and an escort to work for Carnell, according to authorities. "As a man, he wanted to defend the family," said Lt. Rick Hite. " 'I'm not going to let drug dealers run me from my neighborhood.' "

Social workers proffered emergency assistance. Angela's "major thing was she did not want to leave," said the Rev. Willie Armstrong, director of a city program for families facing lethal crises.

Psychiatrist Laura Seidel visited the house to see how the children were handling things. They squeezed onto a couch to chat with her. The younger ones were kind of excited that the kitchen was burned, so they'd be eating takeout chicken that night. They planned to watch a video, "Shrek."

But they were also scared. "They were afraid to go out in the street and play with their friends," Seidel said.

Angela decided to keep the children home from school for a while. Carnell went to work, but he kept in touch with home, sometimes calling every two hours, said Stewart.

Gradually the Dawsons' minds were changing on the subject of moving. They found another house they liked not far away, according to some people close to them.

Donnell Golden remembers her last conversation with her daughter: "The very last thing she said to me was, 'I can't take this no more. I don't want to move. I have to move.' "

At about 12:30 a.m. Oct. 16, Carnell's co-workers dropped him off. Stewart had loaned him a couple bucks to buy a 40-ounce Colt 45 to relax at home.

When the car pulled up to the corner, two young men were standing outside the house. "Don't say anything to them, Country," his friends said. Carnell walked past the men and inside.

Two hours later, the corner was on fire.

By the time the firetrucks arrived three minutes after receiving the call, Carnell had already hit the sidewalk.

The Other Side of the Street Darrell Brooks lived across Eden from the Dawsons, next door to John Henry.

A witness said Brooks kicked in the Dawsons' door and started the fire, according to the police report. Police searched his room and found a blue Gap bag with a pickle jar. At the bottom of the jar was a puddle that smelled like gasoline.

Police say the motive was retaliation for Angela's frequent police calls, though there is no record Brooks was ever arrested thanks to Angela.

No one has been charged in the first fire.

Brooks's biography is etched with some of Oliver's contrasts and contradictions.

He lived with his mother, a nurse who kicked a cocaine habit, according to court records. He was briefly taken away from her after she beat him with a belt for not doing his homework, but he was returned, and they had a good relationship.

His older brother was murdered when Brooks was 12. He had trouble coping with the murder, and was placed in schools for children with emotional problems, his mother said. He dreamed of joining the Coast Guard.

In his early teens he was befriended by Robert Stokes, a Democratic activist who ran a community outreach office in Oliver. Brooks passed out fliers and did odd jobs in exchange for pocket money, food and summer pool passes. He also volunteered at a recreation center.

In the late 1990s, Stokes helped Brooks get a part-time job on the staff of the Baltimore City Council. The youth was well liked by council members. As a prank, when he used to pass bills around for co-sponsors, he would remove the inside of the pen, so no signature could be made.

In 1998, when he was 17, he was charged with robbery and assault for holding a BB gun to an 11-year-old boy's head and demanding his blue Huffy mountain bike. The case was moved to juvenile court and the outcome is confidential.

Stokes said Brooks was crushed a couple years ago when the Coast Guard rejected him. He set his sights on becoming a physical education teacher, his mother said.

Late last year he lost his council job because he started coming in late.

This year he was arrested several times. In February and June he was charged with possessing cocaine, the first time a block from the Dawsons' corner, the second time two blocks away. In April someone demanding money shot Brooks in the foot.

In March and May he was charged with stealing cars. The first time he was placed on probation for two years. The Baltimore Sun first reported that since he violated his probation by breaking the law again, he could have been kept behind bars instead of being free when the Dawsons' home burned. State probation authorities missed the fact he had been arrested again.

"Darrell has always wanted to help and be around little children," said his mother, Tondalear Alston. "That's why people can't imagine he would do anything to endanger little children."

Alston lived with her son across from the Dawsons until a year ago. She said she was too busy working to get to know most neighbors, including Angela Dawson.

"I know one time she did tell me that my son wasn't like other children around there because he never disrespected her," Alston said. "She's never had my son arrested before for nothing. I never heard about my son and her having a confrontation or nothing. Why would he even do that?"

Alston's voice sounded tired in a telephone interview. She said her family has cut her off since her son made the headlines.

"My son said he didn't do it," Alston said, "and I have to believe my son until they prove otherwise.

Bitter Ashes Maybe the meaning of a perfect horror is what happens after.

For two generations at least, neighborhoods like Oliver have been dying, but too many people stopped noticing. Now some are hoping the atomic shock of the Dawson case can be harnessed to accomplish change, finally.

Thousands have visited the rowhouse ruins to commune with the dead. Many stuffed bills into big water jugs on the sidewalk, raising $11,896 for Angela's surviving daughter and Carnell's two surviving daughters.

Relatives have retained an investigator from Johnnie Cochran's firm to determine whether police did everything possible.

A few days after the fire, John Harrington Jr. was writing a poem for his sister. A feeling of joy startled him. "I know something great can come from this," he said.

At Carnell's funeral, Mayor O'Malley shook Robert Stewart's hand and said, "We're going to get something good out of this."

Assuring that the Dawsons did not die "in vain" is now the mission of O'Malley's administration.

In his eulogy the mayor addressed "those who push and peddle this hate," and thundered in a ragged voice: "As long as Baltimore remembers the Dawsons, we will not surrender to your hate. Not one neighborhood, not one block, not one family. . . . With America as our witness, this fight is not over."

He announced several steps: higher priority for citizen reports of drug activity, clearing drug corners, 100 state troopers reinforcing police, $1 million from the drug czar for public safety. Also: millions of dollars to youth programs and reclaiming abandoned housing in Oliver. Fifty new treatment slots for addicts in Oliver.

Will it make a difference?

David Simon, hard-boiled poet of Baltimore who wrote the books "Homicide" and "The Corner," says the burning of the Dawsons was an "atrocity" that must be punished -- but as long as the crisis is framed as a drug "war" it will never be won. An estimated 60,000 city addicts and 60,000 drug buyers from the suburbs is too big an army to be conquered -- especially when the chief appeal of the corner is not simply the money and the high, but the sense of meaning conferred on a legion of lost souls who have constructed a parallel universe in every American city.

"The war is over," says Simon. "Figure out what you're going to do in the postwar period. They did not manage to make drugs less available in Baltimore, or less potent, and they had 30 or 40 years to do it."

People who have been working in Oliver for years -- fixing up the playground, starting the after-school program -- say more community-oriented policing is needed, backed by a commitment to jobs and housing for working people. "We need a Marshall Plan over here," says Rob English, an organizer with BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

One afternoon the sight of the charred rowhouse reduces Karmen Smith to tears. She lives in another neighborhood and brought her four children here "for a teachable moment."

What's the lesson?

"I told them it's a war and the Dawsons were role models," she says.

But the Dawsons got killed.

Angela Dawson's "efforts were not in vain," Smith says. "She might have saved a lot more people by her dying."

Shachan'a Johnson, 12, Smith's oldest child, can't help drawing an opposite lesson.

"Sometimes I see stuff going on, I turn the other way," she says. "I wouldn't want nothing to happen to my family."

Her mother is dismayed.

"Would you want to do right?" Smith asks.

"I don't want my house burning up," Shachan'a says.

"What if they need you to testify?"

"I wouldn't do it."

"You don't trust in God?"

"Bullets hurt and fire hurts."

The Crossroads (Now)

Night falls on the corner. Those who work are coming home, those who don't are sitting on stoops and cushioned milk crates. Children are called from the playground.

Hungry people line up for groceries from Danny. A woman with a bottle in a brown bag requests fresh raspberries and Chex cereal. They are still talking about the fire. "She was a good mother," says a woman in a raincoat seeking cake.

Danny says the mood is improving.

"We feel more secure now with the presence of the officers," he says.

He nods toward the police car parked at Preston and Eden. The corner is under 24-hour surveillance.

"We don't understand why they find protection for a burnt-down house and they couldn't find protection when she was alive," neighbor Katie Stanbery said earlier.

"Evidentiary reasons," said Maj. Eads. The corner is a crime scene now.

And the crime scene must be protected.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Angela Dawson, a resident trying to move drug dealers out of her neighborhood, husband Carnell Dawson, and five of their children -- Lawanda, Juan, Carnell Jr., Kevin and Keith -- were killed last month in a fire that someone started in their Baltimore rowhouse.The burnt shell of the Dawsons' house on East Preston Street.Solomon Selby, a friend of Angela Dawson, carries a barrel full of money collected for surviving family members. Right, neighbors and visitors, including, from left, Jermell Thompson, Joseph Ali Ray and Selby, share a prayer at the site of the fatal fire.Darrell Brooks, in this Baltimore City Police mug shot, was charged with arson and first-degree murder for the early-morning rowhouse fire.Neighbors and well-wishers left teddy bears and notes at the burned-out house on East Preston Street.Left, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley sits close to Donnell Golden, Angela Dawson's mother, at a candlelight vigil, above, attended by hundreds.