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D.C. fire kills two; authorities believe they were squatting in vacant apartment

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Ericka Walker said she had heard noises and smelled food cooking nearly every night inside the supposedly vacant red-brick apartment building next to her home on R Street SE.

She called D.C. police, the city, her D.C. Council office and her neighborhood advisory commissioner trying to find the owner, but got little satisfaction. Walker acknowledged that her complaints were vague — “I never saw anyone go in or out. I just heard them,” she said.

On Tuesday, fire swept through the two-story apartment building, and after the flames were out, firefighters found two charred bodies — one near the boarded front door, the other in the middle room of the ground floor.

Fire officials said that the victims appeared to be squatters and that one might have tried to escape but found the entrance sealed. He said the back door had been pried open.

“I called everyone I could think of,” Walker, 41, said of her attempts to reach officials over the past six months.

“I couldn’t find anyone to help,” Walker said. “I knew people were in there. It’s so sad that they lost their lives. Maybe if someone paid attention they’d be alive right now.”

D.C. police and zoning officials said they answered several complaints about open doors and miscreants hanging around the building, but they had no record of calls that people were living there full time.

The fire’s cause remained under investigation. The two-alarm blaze was reported about 10 a.m. and drew about 75 firefighters who worked for about an hour to control it.

Three firefighters were injured, including one who broke his ankle. The victims were among the first fire fatalities of the year; there were eight deaths in 2012 and six in 2011.

The victims have not been identified. They appeared to be adults but their sex could not be determined at the scene, Deputy Fire Chief Edward Pearson said. He said clothing and furniture throughout the building fed the fire, but the items appeared left over from the last paying tenant.

The building, in the 1700 block of R Street SE, supposedly has been without occupants for about a year.

D.C. police said officers can’t always go into a vacant house without sufficient reason to believe a crime is occurring. They said a patrol was sent to the address three times in the past six months — for a fight in the back alley, for a suspicious person, who was arrested, and on Jan. 31 for a report that a back door had been dislodged. Police said they went inside then, but found no one there.

The apartment house is on a block between Minnesota Avenue and the Anacostia Freeway, and although each connected building looks similar, they are owned by different people. Most are divided into two or more apartments. The owner of the building that burned, as listed in city property tax records, could not be reached for comment. City records show the owner is being penalized with a tax rate 10 times the norm because his property has been deemed “blighted” since 2011.

The higher assessment is a way for city officials to persuade property owners to keep their buildings occupied and up to code. District tax records show the property’s 2012 tax bill at $21,870. If the building were occupied, the tax would be a little more than $1,800.

Helder Gil, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said inspectors answered complaints in May and again in December that doors and windows “were open and accessible.” Crews reattached the plywood, screwing the boards into the wooden door and window frames. He said inspectors followed up on Dec. 27, “and at that point the property was secure.”

“When we get complaints about a vacant building opened up and squatters taking over, we will respond,” Gil said.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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