The first 911 call about the fire that spread across three Baltimore rowhomes in the city’s Northwest District came shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday. By 9 p.m., one firefighter was dead and four others were being treated for injuries, fire officials announced outside of the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland.
What happened in between? Baltimore City Fire Department Chief James Wallace said the circumstances surrounding the fire are under investigation, which is being supported by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators and Maryland State Fire Marshals.
Homicide and arson investigators also are involved, and neither cause has been ruled out, authorities confirmed Friday. Police say a person was interviewed after being taken into custody Thursday and released.
Here’s what we know now.
Authorities on Friday identified the fallen firefighter as Rodney Pitts III, of Engine 29. Pitts, 31, had completed one year of service with the city.
“Pitts is and always will be a hero, a Baltimorean who literally gave his life for Baltimore,” Mayor Brandon Scott said at a Friday news conference.
Wallace, who pinned Pitts with his badge in August, said Pitts was inside the structure as he fought the fire, and three others who were injured went in to rescue him.
Gov. Wes Moore on Friday ordered the United States and Maryland flags lowered to half-staff effective immediately, and returned to full-staff at sunset on the day of Pitts’ burial. No funeral arrangements have been announced.
Injured are being treated for burns
Wallace said Thursday that four firefighters were injured and being treated for varying degrees of burns.
Lt. Dillon Rinaldo, of company 46, is a six-year veteran of the force who remains in critical but stable condition at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital. Scott visited with him and the family at the hospital Friday and said he was fighting for his life. He called on Baltimore to pour their love and energy into that fight.
“They know we’re wrapping our arms around them,” Wallace said Friday. He also gave updates about three other firefighters:
- Lt. Keith Brooks, a 14-year veteran, was treated and released.
- Tavon Marshall, a 3-year veteran, was treated and released.
- Seth Robbins, a 17-year veteran, remains in the hospital in stable condition.
Wallace said no one else was harmed.
Speaking about the injured firefighters Friday, Wallace said the city should rally around them.
“When you see my members on the street, stop what you’re doing and thank them. Give them a hug. Show them your appreciation,” he said.
The fire grew ‘very rapidly’
Though it’s not clear how the fire started or how long it took to extinguish, Wallace said late Thursday that a rapid intervention team went to “attack” the blaze that afternoon and began fighting it from the front and back of the home on the 5200 block of Linden Heights Avenue.
It’s not clear why, but as the crew fought the fire, it “started to grow very rapidly,” Wallace said. He said the damage spread across at least three homes.
Cartwright, the fire department spokesman, said the homes did not completely collapse in this case — unlike the January 2022 Stricker Street fire that killed three city firefighters — and it’s likely the firefighters responded to a scene with “visibility zero” due to the smoke and “superheated” temperatures rising as high as 1,200 degrees.
“It’s quite an extensive investigation that we have to perform. To get that narrative completely together, it’s like writing a book, so to speak,” he told reporters shortly after Thursday night’s news conference.
On Friday morning, five houses on the block were fenced off. One — the second unit from the end — had partially collapsed in the rear second-level and roof.
Smoke and particles filled the air Friday morning. The fire blew out all the windows on the upper levels of four homes. Charred wood and burned awnings hung low from each of the homes affected.
By midday Friday, Baltimore City Fire Department Special Services and Forensics units began assessing the four homes scorched in the Thursday fire. Linden Heights Avenue remain blocked off to oncoming traffic.
Randolph Parker, 74, stood along the gated scene taking pictures of one house — his sister’s — for their records. She’s now staying with her daughter in another part of town.
”Well, you can’t cry over spilled milk,” Parker said. “We just sold our parents’ home and we put a lot of memorabilia in the basement, like pictures, sterling silver and other trinkets.”
Parker said he expected Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to cut the electricity off in the four homes, but the scene needs to be cleared first, he said. He hopes that he and his family will be able to also go in soon enough to recover anything that has not been destroyed.
Wallace, on Friday, said the department is reviewing 911 recordings and dispatch tape, as well as interviewing department members and witnesses.
“That situation remains extraordinarily active,” he said of investigation. “For me to speak on that at this point is not going to be fair to members involved or my department because I’d be speculating,” he said.
Point of origin may have been a vacant house
Wallace said early indications show the fire started in an occupied home. But public records conflict with that narrative.
Late last month, a Baltimore home inspector visited the house where authorities say they believe the fire began and issued a violation for “building, fire and related codes of Baltimore City.” The homeowner was instructed to remediate the problem — a broken second-floor window — on or before Oct. 30, according to the violation notice. The house was deemed as a vacant house and “unfit for human habitation or other authorized use,” according to the notice.
Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development spokeswoman Tammy Hawley declined to comment on the possible discrepancy, calling the matter an active investigation.
The neighboring homes on either side of the possible origin point have not been issued violation notices, according to the city’s violation and citation database. But a house located two houses down was deemed vacant in 2019 and was found by an inspector to lack gas and electric service.
On Friday, Wallace said the matter remains unconfirmed, but the structure where Pitts died and the others were injured was an “occupied” home flanked by two vacant structures.
A neighbor, Ken Morton, 58, recalled sitting at home Thursday when he heard hard knocks at his door. He was “agitated” by the disruption at first but wound up being alerted by teenagers who also live on the block to get out of the house.
”They said, ‘Mr. Kenny, it’s a fire!’ and they were trying to get everybody out,” Morton said Friday, adding that the fire department’s mobile units were arriving by the time he came outside. “The smoke was so thick and black you couldn’t even see the porches. And on the back side, you could see how high and intense the flames were,” Morton said.
As someone whose family has been living on the block for the past 50 years, Morton said “it’s very unfortunate to have to watch neighbors endure this tragedy.” His home was not damaged by Thursday’s fire.
To Morton’s knowledge, the block’s first home — the end unit — was vacant, and the fire’s possible origin point next to it was being “remodeled,” Morton said. “They still had people occupying the house to do the work, I guess. But they didn’t totally live there.”
Baltimore Banner reporter Hugo Kugiya contributed to this report.