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Md., N.Va. Fires Kill 4; Smoking Is Blamed

Boy, 9, Among Victims Of Pr. George's Blaze

By Tara Bahrampour and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page B01

Four people in the Washington suburbs, including a 9-year-old boy, died over the weekend in house fires after cigarettes were left unattended or were not extinguished properly, fire officials said yesterday.

Early yesterday, three people from three generations of a family died after a living-room couch caught fire and engulfed their Prince George's County home. Margaret Bobo, 91; her son Morris Jackson, 49; and his nephew, Ako Henson, 9, were killed. Ako's father was also in the home in the 5400 block of Addison Road in Fairmount Heights but was able to escape, said Capt. Chauncey Bowers, spokesman for Prince George's Fire and Emergency Medical Services.

One of the victims of the house fire in Fairmount Heights had lived there since at least the 1950s, a neighbor said. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

Glenn Donsanto, 35, was killed Saturday night after his bed caught fire in his home in the Vienna area of Fairfax County. A passing pizza deliveryman tried to save him but could not reach the bedroom.

The number of home fires caused by smoking materials has fallen by two-thirds in the United States since the 1980s, according to a study released last month by the National Fire Protection Association. Still, more people die from smoking-related fires than any other type of fire, the study found. Nationally, there were 770 such deaths in 2001.

Bowers said there have been 13 deaths caused by residential fires in Prince George's this year, most of which could have been avoided. The county, he said, will provide free smoke detectors to any interested residents.

Stunned neighbors and relatives gathered yesterday afternoon in a parking lot next to the two-story house, the front of which was charred black. Neighbors created a memorial of stuffed animals and baby-blue helium balloons attached to the sole tree inside the home's chain-link fence.

"As you can see, this family was loved," said Sirraya Grant, who lives nearby.

Grant said Ako often played with her son, Malik, who is 7. Ako, whom she described as "a little chunky and always happy," liked to play football and ride bikes. He was eager to help neighbors when they cut the grass or trimmed hedges, she said.

"It's unbelievable," Grant said. "He was like a child to me. . . . We would have given anything this morning to see him as usual."

Pat Webb, a neighbor, said Ako often played with her 5-year-old grandson. For an older boy, Ako was surprisingly gentle and encouraging, she said.

Wade Holland, another neighbor, said that Bobo had lived in the same house since at least the 1950s and that he had gone to school with Jackson. "She was a very nice lady, very well-loved in the neighborhood," he said of Bobo. Jackson, who neighbors said worked as a garage attendant, "took care of his mother," Holland said.

In Vienna, Domino's Pizza deliveryman Rob Mankin, 45, had just made a delivery at 7:30 p.m. Saturday when he passed a house in the 1900 block of Batten Hollow Road and noticed something strange. "It looked like there was fog over these people's house," he said. "It didn't look right."

After knocking on the door and going to a neighbor's to call 911, Mankin returned to the house, which had several cars in the driveway and led him to suspect someone was home. He found the door unlocked, opened it and was confronted with rolls of thick smoke. After getting a wet towel from a neighbor, he said, he returned to the house several times, crawling through the kitchen and the living room to look for occupants and running outside to retch in between searches. The smoke was thickest upstairs, he said, adding that he saw flickers of flame in one room.

"I started yelling, 'If there's anyone in here, make a noise and I'll come get you!' " he said, his voice still hoarse from the smoke. The only occupant he found was an orange tabby cat, which he rescued. Firefighters arrived soon after.

Mankin, a father of two who has worked for Domino's for 17 years, was treated for smoke inhalation at Inova Fairfax Hospital and released that night.

Donsanto lived in the house with his father, Craig Donsanto, who was not home at the time of the fire, said Renee Stilwell, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County fire department.

The Donsantos' split-level house on a quiet street of expansive lawns was cordoned off yesterday with yellow tape. Above a Christmas wreath, three upstairs windows were boarded up. Stilwell said the fire was limited to one room and caused $25,000 damage. The house had several smoke alarms, she added, although one was disabled.

About half of U.S. home fire deaths occur in houses without smoke alarms, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Bowers said that the Addison Road house had a smoke detector but that it did not have batteries, which prompted Prince George's fire officials there to go door-to-door in the surrounding area to make sure that other families had working smoke detectors and evacuation plans.

But Stilwell said the disabled alarm was not a factor in Donsanto's death. "In this particular case, unfortunately, the working smoke alarm would not have saved him, since he was the one that was on fire," she said. "We'll never know, but it looks like he fell asleep smoking."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company