Fire Clues Still Inaccessible
Instability of D.C. Apartment Building Delays Start of Close Investigation

By Allison Klein and Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 15, 2008

D.C. fire investigators remain unable to start a hands-on examination into the massive blaze that tore through a Mount Pleasant apartment building because much of the structure is on the verge of collapse, officials said yesterday.

The fire, which left about 200 people homeless early Thursday, ravaged the left side of the building, wrecking nearly everything but the facade, said Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin. The right side of the building was mostly spared.

"The left side of the building is almost gone, devastation is almost complete," Rubin said.

A contractor is working to shore up the facade so investigators can get inside to learn what caused the first five-alarm fire in the District in almost 30 years, a fire larger in scope than the one that devastated Eastern Market nearly a year ago. Fire officials said they suspect the blaze ignited in the basement but cautioned that nothing is certain.

D.C. police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the case, and Rubin said he hoped a cause could be determined within a week. "All avenues are being considered; all causes are on the table," the chief said.

Although the building had a long history of housing code violations, authorities have said there is no evidence that those problems led to the fire. The property, owned by Deauville Partners, was cited for more than 7,100 housing code violations from 2004 through January 2007, records show, but city officials said repairs corrected the problems.

The area in front of the Deauville apartment building, 3145 Mount Pleasant St. NW, was still covered in ashes yesterday. Most of the four-story structure's windows were boarded up, as were windows of an adjacent building that were also blown out by the fire. Parts of the roof of Meridian Hill Baptist Church next door to the apartment building collapsed and stain-glassed windows were shattered. The damage was so severe that officials and residents continued to marvel that no one was seriously hurt in the towering fire.

Some of the displaced families gathered at a Red Cross location set up in the Columbia Heights Community Center at 1480 Girard St. NW, where people dropped off donations. Emergency workers made contact with 101 families, sending from 80 to 100 to a Best Western hotel several miles away, officials said.

The families will spend several nights in the hotel while the city works to get them into permanent housing. Finding enough places will not be easy, with 63 units scattered throughout the city available for the relocation program. They range from efficiencies to four-bedroom units, and the city plans to negotiate rents that are no higher than what the tenants were paying at the Deauville apartments. Average rents for a one bedroom apartment ranged from $400 to $1,000 a month.

Tenants hope to get some answers at 10 a.m. today, when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and other officials meet with them at the Columbia Heights Community Center. Fenty has said he will ensure the apartment building is rebuilt into affordable housing.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he spoke with a representative of the management company, Greenstreet Properties, who said the owners have $30 million worth of insurance on the building.

At the Best Western's Ambassador Room, hundreds of immigrants displaced by the fire met with their home country's representatives. Consuls from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua opened their briefcases and listened to their fellow countrymen.

Juana Miriam Melgar, who has lived in the Mount Pleasant building for 13 years, worked with the consul from El Salvador to get her paperwork re-created.

"My passport, my birth certificate. My daughter's U.S. passport, all of it burned," Melgar said. "And my daughter's trophies. Two spelling bee trophies."

She was preparing herself to move to another part of town. The residents have no say in where the city places them. "I miss my Mount Pleasant street," she said.

Angie Alvarenga, 8, and Carlos Escobar, 9, sprawled in the hotel lobby and played a board game, Don't Panic. They realized people were trying to help them, but they, too, were having trouble with what was lost.

"My teacher bought me new clothes," Angie said. "But I miss all my stuff. All my photos, from when I was a baby. I saved money, almost a hundred dollars to go see my grandma. It's not easy to get used to being in a new place when all you knew was that home."

The city was getting numerous offers of help. Neighbors' Consejo, a social services organization, is accepting food and clothing at 3118 16th St. NW. A donation center also will open at the D.C. General warehouse on Independence Avenue SE behind the D.C. Armory from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and tomorrow, said Millicent Williams, who is coordinating the donation efforts by Serve D.C.

The residents need shoes, underwear, socks, toiletries, home furnishings and other items. Organizers ask that only new clothing or clothing with a cleaning receipt attached be given because regulations specify that used clothing has to be taken off site and processed before it can be handed out. The displaced residents need clothing as soon as possible, Williams said.

Finally able to rest, some firefighters told harrowing tales of battling the flames. As they attacked the blaze, the left side of the building turned into a fireball, with flames licking several feet into the air and within almost arm's reach of an apartment building next door.

Several teams of firefighters created a "water curtain" with their hoses, sending streams parallel to the buildings to beat back the flames.

"If we couldn't flood this block with firemen, we could have lost five or six buildings," Battalion Chief Michael Reilley said. "That's the importance of having a major city fire department. Because even if you have one of these incidents only every five years or 10 years, you literally do not want to lose a block of your historic town being unprepared.

"Despite how bad it looks it really was the best outcome," Reilley said.

Staff writer Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.

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