Correction to This Article
A March 25 Metro article about the fire at 3145 Mount Pleasant St. NW incorrectly said that the D.C. government will provide dislocated tenants with their first month's rent and security deposit. The American Red Cross of the National Capital Area will pay those expenses. The city will subsidize the difference between tenants' previous rent and the rent of their temporary apartment.

Victims of Fire Pick Up Pieces Of Their Lives

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The first things that Cristobal Hernandez salvaged from his fire-ravaged apartment were two wet dollar bills. They had been neatly folded and placed under a votive candle with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, where he is from.

There the money stayed during a five-alarm fire March 13 that heavily damaged a 90-unit apartment building in Mount Pleasant in Northwest Washington, displacing about 200 tenants. The fire also damaged neighboring Meridian Hill Baptist Church.

Hernandez was among the tenants allowed into the building yesterday to retrieve personal belongings. Among the items he salvaged were a PlayStation console, a laptop computer, clothes, shoes, toiletries, jewelry, photos and gifts given to his pregnant wife, who gave birth to a girl five days after the fire.

He also rescued a framed certificate of appreciation for five years of "loyal and faithful service" from the International Association of Bridge, Stone, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers, Local 201.

Standing outside the massive skeleton of the building at 3145 Mount Pleasant St. NW, Hernandez said: "Well, I'm sad to see all this, but happy, too. We did make it out."

With that, he left the cordoned-off site, carrying a small brown teddy bear. His family's belongings were stuffed into boxes and heavy plastic garbage bags that sat in the bed of a friend's pickup truck.

Hernandez, 27, is one of the lucky tenants, said city officials who for the past 10 days have been at the site, along with representatives of the D.C. police, a private security company and Minkoff Inc. Minkoff is the general contractor hired by the owner of the building, Deauville Partners, to demolish most of the damaged structure and begin the rehabilitation. In the past decade, the building had been cited for more than 7,000 housing code violations, but the city had intervened by making repairs, as had the landlord, in the past two years.

The District government has provided temporary shelter for the tenants, first at a hotel near South Capitol Street and now at a hotel in Foggy Bottom. City and nonprofit housing agencies have compiled a list of available apartments, and D.C. Department of Human Services Director Clarence Carter said some families would move from the hotel as soon as yesterday or today.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) pledged $275,000 in city funds to provide dislocated tenants with their first month's rent and security deposit, and for subsidies to cover the difference between the rents they had paid in the rent-controlled building and their new, temporary apartments. Fenty said the city would work with Deauville Partners to expedite the reconstruction of the building to try to get tenants back in within a year and a half and at rents comparable to what they had paid.

"The mayor wanted to ensure that for people who experienced such a tremendous tragedy, that there wasn't added-on tragedy in helping them transition to the next phase of their lives," Carter said. "He has asked us to pull out all the stops."

About half the tenants of the Deauville building have been allowed back in to retrieve belongings; hard hats were required. The group of mostly Latin American immigrant tenants searched for material possessions as well as their life savings.

The day after the fire, for example, a woman begged firefighters and other officials to retrieve a suitcase in which she said she had $50,000 in cash, officials said. Another tenant told officials he lost $5,000 in cash in the fire. Others have reported losses ranging from $700 to $7,000. A couple visiting the site Sunday, who said they lost $3,000 they had saved, did so for closure.

"The lady lost it for a little while," said George Escobar, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Latino Affairs. "Her husband was from Mexico; she was from Honduras, and both their fathers had died back home. . . . They were saving money and supporting their mothers. There they were, standing in the space where their unit used to be. Eventually they felt a little better."

The north wing of the building, where the couple from Mexico and Honduras lived, was so damaged that the general contractor had to demolish almost all the wing except for the facade and the few apartments behind that exterior wall.

"We've had folks that come and just look at that side and it's been real sad," said Randy Moses, an emergency management coordinator for the D.C. Department of Human Resources. "They can't go in, but we take them around to the back to show them how it was destroyed. The good thing is that they get closure and that they've got their lives."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company