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Family says D.C. fire victim was visiting, not squatting, in building when blaze occurred

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The relatives of Glenn Morris Williams want everyone to know that he was not a squatter. He perished in a fire last week in an abandoned apartment at the age of 51 while visiting friends who had no other place to go.

Williams, legally blind in one eye, had slept overnight in the boarded-up building in Southeast Washington, but he lived with his 74-year-old mother nearly four miles away in Northeast. He graduated from McKinley Technology High School, studied criminal justice for a year in college and took on construction jobs until his diminished eyesight made him too disabled to work.

Now, his mother, six siblings and a niece who works for the D.C. fire department are preparing for a funeral Friday as they try to learn more about why Williams was in the apartment and what started the fire on Feb. 5 that killed him and a woman in the 1700 block of R Street SE.

Williams’s mother, 74-year-old Julia Williams, said that the day before he died, an acquaintance called and asked him to go to the house on R Street. “He said to me that he didn’t want to go,” she said. “But he promised.” Relatives said Williams had gone to visit a friend named Ed, who squatted at the R Street building from time to time.

Authorities said they have not determined what caused the fire, although homicide detectives have been assigned to help investigate, which is routine in questionable-death investigations. The medical examiner is still trying to determine how those inside died.

Williams’s sister, Ophelia Barley, who lives in Camp Springs, said she believes that “smoke distorted his vision and he couldn’t see how to get out.” Fire officials had said they found one body near the sealed front entrance, as if the person died trying to escape.

What most upsets relatives is the description of Williams as a squatter, given by police and fire officials as well as neighbors who had repeatedly told the city that people were living in the vacant building. Even after the names were released, police listed them in a statement as “both of no fixed addresses.”

Barley said her brother definitely had an address. “My brother was not living in that building,” Barley said. “He just happened to be there at the wrong time.”

Police have identified the second victim who died in the fire as Diane Toogood, 56. Attempts to reach her family were unsuccessful. Barley and other relatives of Williams said they had never heard of Toogood. Barley said they were going through Williams’s photos to see if she appears.

Glenn Williams’s niece, Rolanda Williams, 40, was at her job in the fire department’s inspector’s office when a friend of her uncle called. He told her about the fire and about how he had left the vacant apartment two hours earlier but that he thought “Glenn was in that building.”

She had heard about the fire on her radio and knew it was bad, but didn’t know anyone had died. When she realized her uncle had been inside, she rushed there and learned the crushing news.

Amid their grief, relatives are working to restore the reputation of their loved one — from anonymous squatter to family man who will get a proper burial, on Friday at the Spirit of Faith Christian Center in Temple Hills.

Glenn Williams counseled his younger nieces, nephews and cousins to avoid hooking up with friends “on the wrong path,” as he did in high school, telling them that had he been more responsible he might have become the lawyer he wanted to be.

Even with his failing eyesight, he was a voracious reader, seen carrying a book every place he went. He read about politics. He read novels. Most recently, he was reading two books on the history of the District

Glenn Williams had moved in with his mother to help her get to the store and do chores. Rolanda Williams said her uncle was the man of the family. “He will be missed terribly,” she said. “He would do anything for anybody and never expected anything in return.”

Rolanda Williams has worked as a firefighter since graduating from high school, handling too many fatal fires to recall. Four years ago, she was promoted to her current post, inspecting buildings for fire code violations. She’s assigned to Ward 8, where the fire occurred, but had never been inside the building on R Street.

Twice in her 21 years on the job, she’s learned of sudden deaths of people she was close to: a friend and a boyfriend. Now, there’s a third.

“This time, it’s my uncle,” she said. “It’s just terrible.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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