Two injured in Arlington house fire

April 16, 2013

Fire tore through an Arlington County house Tuesday morning, forcing one woman to jump from a second-floor window and trapping another in the basement of the rental property, which has been cited repeatedly for crowding and other code violations, officials said.

The fire broke out before 11 a.m. at the house, in the 2300 block of North Dinwiddie Street, consuming both floors and part of the roof, according to the Arlington Fire Department. Two people, including the woman who jumped, were taken a hospital, said Capt.Gregg Karl, a Fire Department spokesman. The women were not identified, and he did not know their condition.

Samantha Pozo, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, said she was in the basement apartment when she heard an explosion upstairs. She tried to leave, but smoke and flames blocked the only exit: a door that led outside, she said.

“I was completely trapped,” said Pozo, who said she is among six young women who lived in the house. She said she called 911 and stayed on the phone until a firefighter arrived and helped her and her two pet ferrets to safety.

Authorities said they did not know what caused the fire.

Arlington officials also said they are investigating whether there were building code violations at the house. The owner, Paul Chretien, declined to comment.

Gary Greene, Arlington code enforcement manager, said that county rules allow no more than four unrelated people to live in the house and that officials think there were as many as six tenants. He also said officials had previously barred Chretien from having tenants in the basement because the basement windows were sealed.

Greene said Chretien was notified in August 2011 of multiple code violations. The basement had been illegally converted into a second living area, he said, and inspectors found improper electrical wiring, defective smoke detectors and defective exhaust fans. Chretien had corrected the problems by November 2011, saying the basement would be only used for storage.

“He had knowledge of what the law was and violated it,” Greene said.

Pozo said she was living in the basement with one roommate who was not at home when the fire broke out.

Drew Lofton, a construction supervisor, said he was working nearby when he saw smoke. When he arrived at the home, which was engulfed in flames, he saw a woman with one leg out of the window, looking scared. “People were yelling: ‘You have to jump! You have to jump!’ ” Lofton said.

The woman leapt to the ground, and Lofton and her neighbors helped carry her to safety as she complained of pain in her legs and back.

Lofton, a former firefighter from Laurel, said he entered the burning house through the front door and yelled upstairs but heard no response.

As firefighters were inspecting the aftermath of the fire — which little left intact aside from a bed frame, a bicycle wheel and some metal chairs — Glory Marie Lasanta came running down the street. Lasanta, Pozo’s roommate, burst into tears when she saw the charred remains of the house.

“I’ve only seen this in a movie,” Lasanta said.

All the tenants are international students who “go to school and work,” said Pozo, who is from Ecuador.

Since 2002, there have been nine investigations of the house for crowding, illegal conversion and other violations, Greene said. “Tenants were told not to park in the neighborhood of the house, so as not to give the appearance of overcrowding.”

In 2006, Greene said, Chretien received a violation notice because the property had no heat or hot water.

Chretien has owned the property since 1988, according to authorities. Officials said they are investigating two other properties that he rents out on the same block.

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