Since the new year, a fear of fire has hung over the city. Winter fires have killed 18 people, nine of them children, in row houses in every part of town, blazes made harder to fight by the snow-clogged streets and frigid temperatures. Then, a wave of deliberately set fires scorched 16 vacant buildings in one west Baltimore neighborhood, terrifying area residents and creating a run on smoke detectors.
But by Tuesday afternoon, when arson investigators arrested 31-year-old Eugene Rozzell and charged him with setting one of the fires, residents, civic leaders and city officials had neutralized much of the fear by a combination of boosterism and community organizing.
"I think this is a major thing that's happened, the way the neighborhood has responded to these fires," said community activist Linda Jones, who organized a talk on fire prevention and safety for 200 residents of the Franklin Square area.
Earlier, representatives of Mayor William Donald Schaefer worked with fire officials to donate some 860 free smoke detectors to needy families, using money given by nine banks, local businesses, and concerned individuals -- including $200 from the mayor. Money has been collected to buy several hundred more smoke detectors, and firefighters have given their spare time to help install them. Citizens, sometimes prodded by neighbors, came forward to offer tips to police investigators. Acting in part on a tip provided by two witnesses, police arrested Rozzell as he left a mental health clinic where he had voluntarily committed himself last week. He is charged in connection with one fire, but police say evidence linking him to other blazes will be presented to a grand jury.
"People are saying, 'Yes, we want help but this is what we will do for ourselves, like people in affluent neighborhoods look out for each others' houses,'" said Jones. Located minutes from the glittering inner harbor, the Franklin Square area is a peculiar blend of ghostly vacant shells, rundown row houses, long-standing homes and renovated town houses.
"The bad thing is that the arson happened, that buildings burned," Jones said, "but the good thing is that people are not afraid to speak up."
The 18 fire-related deaths that occurred in the first three weeks of the year were a chilling contrast to the 29 fire deaths that occurred in all of 1981. "For a while we were losing two people a day," said firefighter Charles Miller, of Engine Co. number 8, one of the busiest in the city. Many of the victims were children who died needlessly of smoke inhalation, fire officials said, in homes that lacked warning devices or adequate escape routes.
Last Monday and Tuesday, a series of 16 fires damaged as many vacant buildings; 12 of them set within minutes of each other Monday, and all occurring within an eight-block area of the Franklin Square neighborhood. Lt. William Thompson, of Engine Co. 8 remembered that, "The fires were so close together, the hoses were crisscrossing. And you had a hard time getting to your fire," because firemen had to manuever around other engines on ice-slicked narrow streets, he said.
Investigators surmised that last week's fires were set by the same person, noting that all began in vacant buildings with debris piled on one of the floors. Since most were abandoned homes owned by the city, property damage was estimated at a scant $15,000, but the fires burned next to occupied homes whose residents feared the spread of flames.
"I'm sick of it. Who wouldn't be sick of it?," said an irate Queenie Barnes, who was eating a late dinner with her family at their North Gilmore Street home last Monday when a passerby banged on the door to tell them to get out because the vacant house next door was in flames. Several hours later they had to evacuate again when the same house burned once more.
"I can't get back what I've got; I couldn't get back what I've accumulated all these years," she said, tired of being asked how she felt about the fires. "You just don't know how it feels until you're in it. What if somebody burned half your roof off?"
Seventeen-year-old Paul Gibson found it hard to sleep after watching three separate fires burn a few doors way from his home on North Mount Street. "You could be sleeping and the next thing you know -- It could be your house," he said.
After the first wave of deaths, the mayor and the fire department embarked on a plan to donate the smoke detectors. A Schaefer aide coordinating the effort, Fontaine Sullivan, remembered a gimmick from the radio promotion of a Rolling Stones concert, where people hung signs in their windows if they wanted free tickets. "It may sound a little corny but I thought, what if it works?," she said.
Signs appeared throughout the city, and the first 860 smoke detectors were quickly handed out along with new batteries. Those who couldn't obtain them on the first round gave their names to fire officials who promised to return. Meanwhile, area hardware stores reported a run on smoke detectors, which firefighters attributed to the neighborhood's acute awareness of fire.
According to fire department spokesman Capt. Patrick Flynn, the department now has 300 more detectors to donate, and the city's goal is to ensure that at least half the city's 176,000 homes have a detector provided by someone.
The week also brought out a less charitable side of the city. Police searched for a man who burglarized the homes of 10 or 12 elderly people by posing as a firefighter involved in giving away the free smoke detectors. After police broadcast a description of the man, R.C. Rhodes, 35, of 1300 block of Division Avenue, turned himself in Wednesday and was charged with burglary.
Police speculated that Rhodes must have realized that, after their trying month, residents of west Baltimore would not permit his exploits to go unpunished.
"He must have felt he was safer with us than with the relatives of some of the victims," said Hill.