D.C. family says Pepco to blame in house fire

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lou Costantino was down on the living-room floor whiling away the morning with his 3-year-old twins as they played with the trains beneath the Christmas tree: Thomas the Tank Engine, Percy and James, and an old Lionel from Costantino's boyhood.

He heard a crackling noise and saw a puff of smoke just before the lights went out Monday. "I thought it could be just another power outage because we have them all the time" around his home at Manning Place NW and MacArthur Boulevard in the Palisades neighborhood, Constantino said.

He flipped the switches in the fuse box and called Pepco to report the problem a few minutes before 11 a.m. Monday. A crew would be out in a few hours, Costantino said he was told.

But the problem was more than an outage. Before the afternoon ended, Costantino's home would be severely damaged, about 50 firefighters would be at the scene, and his family would be displaced to a hotel after a fire that Costantino insists could been avoided had Pepco been quicker and smarter in its response.

"Our house burned because of Pepco; I don't hesitate saying that," he said.

Pepco said Tuesday that it is investigating what "is clearly an unfortunate situation." But pending the review, the company declined to say whether its crew shut off power to the house or when its workers responded.

"We'll step up if we are found liable," said spokesman Bob Hainey.

By about 11:15 a.m. Monday, Costantino's wife, Amy, was back on the phone talking to "a live person at Pepco" describing a downed live wire outside the garage door. Costantino had discovered it when he went to shut down the main electrical box, which was buzzing.

When he looked toward the pole carrying that line, Costantino said, he saw "flames spreading up and down the street along the wire and headed towards our house."

The casing on the wire was "melting" and setting off fires in bushes and on lawns, the Costantinos said they told Pepco and the D.C. fire department in phone calls.

"I get that Pepco may be overwhelmed at times by panicked homeowners saying they think there is a puff of smoke or a smell, but at this point, we [were] telling them: 'Your line is on fire and heading to my house and along the street,' " Costantino said.

Costantino helped his wife, her parents, her 90-year-old grandmother and the twins evacuate the house.

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