Burning of Incense Causes Fatal Fire

By Nia-Malika Henderson and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 15, 2005

Burning incense ignited a blaze that killed two women in a Northwest Washington apartment building Thursday night, fire officials said yesterday.

The women died from smoke inhalation as the flames spread through the first-floor apartment, authorities said. Their names have not been released pending notification of relatives. They are believed to have been in their twenties or thirties.

The fire started about 10:30 p.m. in the apartment, which is on the first floor of a three-story building in the 6900 block of Georgia Avenue NW, near Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The incense, burning in a living room, set a couch and house plant on fire, officials said. The women were found unconscious and in cardiac arrest in a bathroom, where they apparently had fled, officials said. They were pronounced dead a short time later.

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who visited the building yesterday, questioned whether metal bars on some of the apartment windows prevented the women from escaping. "If there weren't bars on the windows, these women would probably be alive," he said.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said there were no signs that the women tried to escape through any of the windows. A window in the living room had no bars, but a window in the bedroom did, according to a maintenance worker at the building.

Etter said that the flames and smoke probably obscured the path to the door and that the women apparently retreated to the bathroom.

Fire officials cited the property's owner yesterday because many windows in the building have metal bars that cannot be opened from the inside. The owner, identified as Bogart Properties, did not respond to a telephone message. Etter said the building was last inspected in 2000.

The fire did not spread beyond the apartment unit and was quickly extinguished by firefighters, Etter said. Six other people in the building were treated for smoke inhalation, and a firefighter was taken to a hospital for an injured back, he said.

Neighbors said two sisters shared the apartment where the fire occurred. Firefighters were called to the scene by other residents after thick, black smoke filled the hallways of the building.

Lawrence Twyman, 50, who lives on the second floor, said he thought his kitchen had caught fire when he saw smoke coming from cabinets near his stove. "I smelled this weird smell and thought I left the burners on," he said.

Twyman said firefighters and police officers arrived quickly and discovered the fire in the apartment beneath his. Officer Kimberly D. Kniffen and neighbors went door-to-door to alert residents. The complex's fire alarm was never pulled, and many residents said they did not know about the fire until they were told to leave.

"I didn't smell smoke until I opened the door," said Sam Humphries, who was asleep when the blaze broke out. "The hallway was just black. It was so smoky I couldn't tell who was who or what was what."

Officials with the U.S. Fire Administration said they had no statistics on how many fire deaths are attributed to the burning of incense. But they said burning incense is very similar to burning candles, a practice that causes about 18,000 fires a year in the United States. A 10-month-old boy died last month in a Northwest Washington apartment fire that was caused by a burning candle.

Kathy Gerstner, a specialist with the fire administration, said people should avoid burning candles or incense or burn them in a safe place using a safe container.

"They should be in a sturdy metal, glass or ceramic holder, in a place where they can't be knocked over, and out of the reach of children and pets," she said, as well as away from curtains, bedding or other fabric.

Gerstner also said that if windows have bars on them, they should be quick-release devices.

"With security bars you can't open, that's a problem," she said. "This happens quite often that people get trapped."

Staff writer Karlyn Barker and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company