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Girl, Mother Injured Escaping Fire in SE

Arson Suspected; D.C. Man Called 'Person of Interest'

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page B04

A 29-year-old mother and her 11-year-old daughter were injured early yesterday after they leapt from a third-floor window to escape a fire that authorities suspect was set in a Southeast Washington apartment building.

The mother dislocated her hip and the daughter suffered a head injury in the fall, fire officials said. Both were hospitalized last night with injuries that were deemed not life-threatening. Fire officials and law enforcement authorities declined to release their names because they are considered witnesses in the case.

Nineteen people were displaced by the fire. A 29-year-old mother and her 11-year-old daughter were injured jumping from a third-floor window. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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Five other people also jumped from the window and escaped without injury the fire that badly damaged five units in the complex in the 3000 block of Stanton Road SE. Nineteen people were displaced by the blaze, and damage was estimated at $180,000 fire officials said.

The fire appeared to have been set about 2 a.m. near an apartment's front door, authorities said. Within hours, D.C. fire investigators arrested a man they called a "person of interest" in the blaze.

Gregory Bellas, 25, was taken into custody on a warrant charging him with arson in another fire. He is accused of setting a fire at an ex-girlfriend's apartment Feb. 1, authorities said. No charges were filed in yesterday's fire.

Fire officials said that liquid was ignited near the apartment door in yesterday's fire as well as the one that was set Feb. 1 in the 1700 block of Trenton Place SE. Both fires appeared to have been set in connection with domestic disputes, authorities said. The ex-girlfriend was not involved in yesterday's fire.

Fire investigators, who have law enforcement power and work for the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, had been trying to find Bellas for a week, officials said.

Fire investigators arrested him about 8 a.m. at his mother's house in the 4400 block of Livingston Road SE, authorities said.

A woman, her fiance and their three young children live in the apartment where the blaze was set yesterday. The injured woman and her daughter were staying at the apartment for the night, relatives said. The two women are sisters.

The sister who lives in the apartment and her fiance spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. They said the fiance and Bellas had been friends. The couple was in their bedroom when they noticed fire coming from the front door.

"It was glowing," the woman said. "I knew something was wrong."

She tried to use her phone to call 911 but was so scared that she ripped the phone from the cord, she said. She then hustled her fiance, three children, sister and niece to one of the windows and urged them to jump.

"We have to get out of here," she recalled screaming as they pushed out the window screen.

The woman's fiance jumped about 15 feet to the ground. The woman then dropped her three children -- ages 4 through 10 -- to him. Her 11-year-old niece jumped from the window but landed hard, the woman said.

She then jumped, followed by her sister, who landed awkwardly and hurt her hip.

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