Residents of the Abell neighborhood are on edge after a fire early Wednesday morning burned four rowhomes and injured three people.

A cause of the fire has yet to be determined. And while the Baltimore police and fire departments are leading the investigation, and ultimately the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will determine the cause, many of the surrounding neighbors believe the fire is hate-related because the main house that caught fire flew a pride flag. Across the street, the pride flag of another home was also burned.

The fire occurred around 4 a.m. in the 300 block of E. 31st Street, according to police. Police said two men, ages 74 and 57, are in serious condition, and a 30-year-old woman is in critical condition. All were transported to R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. Police did not release the names of the injured or which home or homes they occupied.

Fire Chief Niles R. Ford said his members responded to the fire and “got it under control in just under an hour, while preventing the fire from spreading to additional homes.”

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“We are hoping for a speedy recovery for the men and women affected by this fire. This was frightening for the residents in this area, and our entire community,” Ford added.

Mayor Brandon M. Scott, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Niles were all on scene following the fire. They were briefed and spoke with residents.

“What happened this morning in the Waverly community was a horrific incident for our neighbors,” Scott said.

“At this point, we cannot confirm that this was a hate crime. However, my agencies will bring every appropriate resource to bear to get to the bottom of this tragic event. Regardless, I continue to stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ community,” Scott added.

Kathleen Overman, who has lived in the neighborhood for the past five years, said the consensus in the neighborhood is that the fires were deliberate and motivated by hate.

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Charred pieces of the pride flag lay near row homes on the 300 block of E. 31st St. The fire was presumed started by the burning of a pride flag.
Charred pieces of the pride flag lay near row homes on the 300 block of E. 31st St. The fire was presumed started by the burning of a pride flag. (Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

“It would have been one heck of a coincidence that one house with a flag was burned and across the street with the pride flag was set on fire. No matter what officials claim, the neighborhood feels confident that this was a hate crime,” Overman, 32, said.

Overman also described the injured neighbors as “incredibly active members” of the neighborhood.

“Living in one of the historic gayborhoods, most of our neighbors are LGBTQ in some way. Everyone is feeling very shaken today,” Overman said.

Caroline Meyers, who lives across the street from the four houses, said she was “devastated” by the incident.

“[My partner and I] woke up to the sounds of sirens and we smelled something unusual. We heard the sirens and saw the lights coming from the fire trucks,” Meyers, 39, said.

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“We have reason to believe that this was a hate crime because we had pride flags burned just down and across the street at the same time,” Meyers added.

“We’re a community that’s very gay and gay-loving, and that’s a big part of our identity,” she said.

Lisa S., who declined to provide her last name, was driving from Frederick when she got a call from her roommate that the pride flag at her home had been burned. The flag, which had been flying from a flagpole, completely melted.

“Whatever the material was, it melted. … I’m just happy it didn’t burn my house down,” she said.

“I feel angry. I feel really sad for my neighbors. And I feel scared,” she said. “I am scared — not for me, but for people in the community. Like this is Baltimore and I know Baltimore is a weird city, but we’re a progressive neighborhood. And if this shit happens in this neighborhood, I just don’t know where we’re headed.”

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She added: “I know that they haven’t definitively said that this is a hate crime, but I’m sorry — if only two houses that had pride flags up were the ones that were targeted, then what do you call it?”

Residents inspect the damage caused by a fire in the row homes on the 300 block of E. 31st St. (Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Chris Broome, a 41-year-old software developer, lives a block away from the fires and said he knows the gay couple injured.

“The couple was always very nice to me,” he said. “And they always took time to play with my dog, Emily. [Emily] absolutely loves them. She likes them more than me. I hope they are all right. I hope they pull through.”

Broome, who has lived the neighborhood for 17 years, describes it as a formerly artsy area that has added more small families in recent years.

“It’s not uncommon to see pride flags, ‘we believe in science’ flags, BLM flags. It’s a neighborhood that is really progressive — even for Baltimore. There is a lot of income mix, diversity mix.”

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Broome said he was still processing everything. He added that it was still too early to reach a conclusion about the cause.

Overman described the neighborhood as an urban “Gilmore Girls” that regularly hosts potlucks where newcomers are always welcome.

“It’s very inviting. You immediately want to live there,” she said. “The joke is once you rent there, you buy there. It’s a hard neighborhood to leave.”

More than 200 pride flags donated by Flags For Good will be distributed to the neighborhood, Overman said. Other neighbors purchased flag holders and flagpoles, Overman added.

The fires come on the heels of a recent rash of anti-LGBTQ actions across the nation.

A Drag Queen Story Hour Pride event in San Lorenzo, California, was interrupted Saturday by a group of men believed to be affiliated with the far-right extremist group Proud Boys, who used transphobic and homophobic slurs, according to news reports. Also on Saturday, 31 members of a far-right group were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, near a Pride event. Authorities believe the group — comprised of men from various states — planned to riot at the event, according to NPR.

And last month, Baltimore Police investigated two cases where a man, believed to be the same person, was seen on camera torching two pride flags, according to WMAR.

Last week, LGBTQ advocates in Carroll County became outraged when the Carroll County School Board voted 4-1 to prohibit the display of the rainbow pride flag in its schools. Carroll County now appears to have one of the most restrictive pride flag policies in the region.

The fires in Abell come as Baltimore’s LGBTQ community prepares for its annual Baltimore Pride this weekend.

Kenneth Something, the director of strategic partnership and special events for the Pride Center of Maryland, which produces Baltimore Pride, said that he had no concerns about a hate crime occurring during this year’s festivities — citing recent Pride events in Washington, D.C., Annapolis and a Black Trans Pride Parade in Baltimore this past week.

“And they all went on without a hitch,” Something said. “We are expecting the same successful event. However, because America has never known a time when there are no hate crimes, we are preparing the way we do every year. Safety is always the No. 1 priority.”

Owings Mills-based After Hourz Security will be providing the security for this year’s Baltimore Pride.

Jasmine Lee, the company’s CEO, has been closely monitoring the recent incidents in the western U.S.

“There has never been a time I wasn’t concerned with those things. It doesn’t give me fear of anything that happens here,” Lee said. “We’re well trained and vigilant. And we are working with the de-escalation mindset first.”

Something expects more than 20,000 attendees this year.

“This year, because we are expecting a much bigger Pride, we are doubling up on security. That is out of preparation and not out of fear,” Something said.

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