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SE Rowhouse Fire Kills 4 Family Members

Arson Not Suspected In District's Deadliest Blaze in a Decade

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page B01

In the piercing cold, relatives watched yesterday as firefighters picked through charred debris in search of a 5-year-old girl, lost in the wreckage of a blaze that hours earlier had swept through a Southeast Washington rowhouse.

They were already mourning three family members who had perished in the fire. As the hours passed, some prayed that the girl might have survived somehow. Others realized hope was futile. The answer came about 2:15 p.m. when firefighters removed the girl's body.

Firefighters throw materials from the second floor of the rowhouse in Southeast. The blaze claimed a 70-year-old man, his 30-year-old granddaughter and her children, 5 and 11. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

With four dead, the conflagration was the District's deadliest in a decade. The cause was under investigation, and arson was not suspected, officials said.The fire left an extended family struggling to comprehend the magnitude of the loss: a great-grandfather, a mother and her two children killed just days before Christmas.

Throughout the morning vigil, some family members screamed in grief, others embraced and sobbed quietly. One man stood in the middle of a street, yelling that he had lost the only meaningful thing in his life.

"They are gone," said Rudnita Johnson, 35, a relative, as she stood outside the burned shell of the rowhouse, in the 400 block of 17th Street SE, near Capitol Hill. "When you lose four family members at one time, you have to keep each other together."

Authorities identified the victims as David M. Ferguson, 70; Joy P. Hellams, 30; Aisha B. McAllister, 11; and Daisha Reid, 5. Hellams was Ferguson's granddaughter and mother to the two girls, relatives and neighbors said.

The fire pushed to 15 the number of people killed in blazes this year in the District and was the most deadly since 1993, when five people -- including a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old twins -- died in a single incident. Last year, 12 people were killed in D.C. fires.

Yesterday, firefighters were dispatched about 4 a.m. and confronted fast-moving flames consuming the two-story rowhouse, authorities said.

Firefighters found Ferguson lying on concrete steps leading to the basement. He had apparently jumped from a rear second-floor window and was badly injured in the fall. He died later at a hospital.

Two people escaped, an 11-year-old boy and a 57-year-old handyman who was living in the basement and was described as a friend of the family. Neighbors said he reported the fire to authorities and then left. Police and fire investigators were searching for the man yesterday evening, authorities said.

As firefighters pushed into the basement, others charged up steps in search of more victims who were reportedly trapped, officials said. The fire suddenly exploded and floorboards began to weaken and break, forcing the firefighters to withdraw. The first floor and roof soon collapsed. It took about an hour to bring the fire under control, officials said.

"It was like a bomb hit the place," said James B. Martin, assistant chief of operations for the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. "The volume of fire was so large and so intense."

Firefighters eventually found Hellams and Aisha on the second floor. It took several hours to recover Daisha. Investigators believe the fire started in the basement and said it could take days or weeks to determine the cause.

Investigators were not able to determine whether the house had smoke detectors but said the fire probably smoldered for some time.

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