A woman and three small children were killed early yesterday in a Palmer Park house fire that left two other persons critically injured when they leapt out of second-floor windows to escape the flames.
The fire, which according to authorities was caused by a portable space heater and an over-loaded electrical circuit, occurred at 2011 Ray Leonard Rd., a street named after Palmer Park boxing hero Sugar Ray Leonard, who grew up in the neighborhood. It began at 2:30 a.m. and rapidly engulfed both floors of the semidetached house.
"I heard a loud thump. Then I heard my dogs crying and barking. Next thing I know I see a man jumping through the glass with his back on fire," said Robert Grey, a next-door neighbor and the grandfather of two of the children who died.
"All I could hear was screaming, screaming and breaking glass."
The dead, who were found in a charred second floor bedroom by Prince George's County firefighters an hour after the blaze started, were Willie May Thomas, 39, the owner of the house, Glen Lemons, 3, his brother Lavar Lemons, 2, and Mark Anthony Tomlin, 2.
Willie Rouse, 39, the husband of Thomas, was taken to the burn unit of Washington Hospital Center with second and third degree burns over 60 percent of his body. Sylvia Walker, 35, was taken to a Baltimore hospital suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.
Ten persons were sleeping in the three-bedroom house at the time of the blaze, which caused an estimated $60,000 damage. Prince George's County fire inspectors, who spent yesterday combing through debris at the house, determined that the fire started when a first-floor space heater overloaded the electrical circuit it was plugged into.
The fire occurred on a night that Thomas was acting as host to a large group of friends and relatives who were either visiting for the holidays or were unemployed and had no other place to live.
The two Lemons brothers, who lived with their grandparents in the house next door, had spent the night at the Thomas house with the Tomlin child, who with his mother, Jacqueline Tomlin of Northeast Washington, had been staying with Thomas since Christmas.
Also in the house were Walker's 17-year-old son John, and Thomas' two brothers, Philip Brown, 30, and Edward Thomas, 22, both unemployed pipefitters. #t"Willie May was like a friend, a buddy to everyone. She was somebody you could count on anytime you were a little down," said Willie Mae Grey, grandmother of the two Lemons brothers, as she sat in her living room yesterday watching noon television news tapes of the fire. "She didn't have any children of her own, so she was really crazy about my grandchildren."
Edward Thomas, also known as Blue, was sleeping in a second-floor bedroom when he woke and saw the flames in a hallway. "This wasn't smoke. That stuff was crackling, loud, like some kind of bonfire. I opened the window and jumped out. Then I had to sort of roll over on the ground because I saw Jackie jumping out and it looked like she was going to fall on me.
"Her hair was on fire, so I had to roll her around in the ice to put it out. She was screaming, 'Blue, the babies, the babies!' That was when I remembered that the kids were still in there. I looked back up at the house and all I could see was fire. I heard someone, it must have been Glen or Lavar, saying 'Mama, mama!' Then it was quiet."
Shortly after he called the fire department for assistance, Robert Grey dashed outdoors into the freezing cold and attempted to help Rouse, the man he saw jump through the second-story glass with his back in flames.
"I shouted, 'Willie, Willie!' but he was in shock. He was walking around in a slow circle on the front lawn. I helped him sit down on the sidewalk by the car and tried to quiet him. He kept saying the names 'May . . . Var . . . May . . . Var.'"
Thomas said there were four portable space heaters in the house, all of which were working at the time of the fire. He said the natural gas-heating system had been malfunctioning since early autumn. One heater was used to keep the pipes from freezing, two others were on in the upstairs bedrooms, and a fourth was perched on a downstairs coffee table next to a couch where John Walker was sleeping, he said.
"During the day it was so cold sometimes we took turns putting this blanket over our bodies and the heater," Thomas said, standing inside the front door yesterday of Grey's house. "No, there weren't any smoke detectors in the place. The house was old, dig. They built it before anybody ever heard of those things.
"It's sort of hard for me to think about it. All I see is fire in my head and those voices. It was hell."
The four uninjured survivors of the fire stayed yesterday at the home of various Palmer Park friends and relatives. Thomas said he was unsure where he would live now that his sister and her house were gone.
"I guess I'll find something. Nowhere to go right now."