Baltimore family killed in firebombing 15 years ago remembered by neighbors and city

Gail Hemphill Danik can’t forget the night Angela Dawson, her husband and five children died in a firebombing.

“I vividly remember the cries from the building,” said Hemphill Danik, recalling the night of the fire, when she stood outside with her mother, helpless as the flames engulfed the Dawsons’ home at 1401 E. Preston Street.

Today, Hemphill Danik is director of the Dawson Safe Haven Center, built on the site of the Dawsons’ home, where children from the neighborhood come after school to do homework and take art lessons.

On Monday, the Dawson Center marked the 15th anniversary of the bombing with a block party that included booths promoting community safety and speeches by city leaders.

“We want to celebrate a strong black woman that took a stand in saying ‘No more,’ ” said Hemphill Danik.

Before the fire, Dawson had called police to complain about drug dealers across the street. On Oct. 16, 2002, one of them attacked her home with a firebomb that killed her, her husband and five children.

Darrell L. Brooks was convicted in the killing and sentenced to life in prison.

Angela Johnson lived just a couple of blocks from the Dawson family and remembered Angela. They shared the same first name. Dawson shared tips for dealing with rats.

“They say she was a nice person,” said Johnson, 51. “Always sat in her yard playing the radio.”

A pastor from neighboring Knox Church, which helped raise the funds to build the center, led the crowd in prayer. A few children shouted, “Amen!”

“It’s bittersweet, because you don’t want to celebrate a death,” City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young told the crowd, which included young children from the Dawson Center.

Other speakers included including Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman and Reggie Scriber, the deputy commissioner for community services, whose office helped coordinate the event.

“It’s a very good place,” neighbor Royalle Hills said of the center, sitting on the stoop of her home while watching two of her children, Makayla, 8, and Donovan, 3.

Both go there after school. Hills said she’s received milk for her babies, too.

After the speeches came safety seminars — a safety truck, sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and CPR tutorials.

“I think it’s nice,” said Janeen Peterkin, 50, sitting on her front step with her children. She got information on quitting smoking and job training.

Five years ago at another memorial service to honor the Dawsons, Peterkin learned an unsettling fact. “They say that the guy that did it used to live in my apartment.”

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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