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D.C. Blaze Displaces Nearly 200

Northwest Apartment Building Had History of Code Violations

A major fire a year ago today ravaged a Mount Pleasant apartment building, displacing nearly 200 people. The five-alarm blaze was the worst D.C. had seen in about 30 years, firefighters said.
 [Map: Fire in Mount Pleasant, Washington, DC]
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By Petula Dvorak and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 14, 2008

The fire that ripped through a four-story apartment building in Mount Pleasant yesterday, leaving almost 200 people homeless, came after years of complaints about living conditions from tenants and the D.C. government.

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In recent months, the owners of the property had made repairs and were on the verge of settling a lawsuit brought by the tenants association. The building, where more than 7,000 housing code violations were recorded in recent years, is a shambles, and residents do not know when they might return.

Officials have not determined the cause of the fire at the Deauville building at 3145 Mount Pleasant St. NW. The fire apparently began shortly before midnight Wednesday and continued into the morning. Firefighters said they were amazed that no resident was seriously hurt during the fire or the harrowing evacuation. Some residents had to climb out of windows and descend on ladders put up by firefighters. Others stumbled through smoke-filled stairwells. One firefighter suffered smoke inhalation.

Flames shot through the top half of the building in the first five-alarm blaze in the District in nearly 30 years. By contrast, the large fires last spring at Eastern Market and the Georgetown public library were three-alarm blazes.

In addition to the 85 apartment units at the Deauville, the building housed the Ethiopian Community Service Center, an outreach program that provides computer and language classes, counseling and youth programs. The fire also heavily damaged the Meridian Hill Baptist Church next door, where the roof collapsed and stained-glass windows shattered. A temporary homeless women's shelter in the church's basement was also damaged.

Five neighboring buildings were evacuated and a local library branch was closed because of heavy smoke. The Columbia Heights Community Center suspended recreation programs so that it could serve as a temporary shelter. The local chapter of the Red Cross is working with the D.C. Emergency Management Agency to temporarily house people in hotels and help them find other accommodations.

The displaced tenants, most still in pajamas late yesterday, hugged and cried outside the building. They were a diverse mix of immigrant families, single professionals, artists and musicians.

Edilma Alvarez, 33, nine months pregnant, sat on a folding chair and said she had just set up a crib for her baby. Alvarez's due date is today. "I had everything all ready in the apartment, and now it's destroyed," said Alvarez, a native of Guatemala who has lived in the building for three years.

Maria Irma Villatoro was still wearing a gray top and blue pajama bottoms yesterday afternoon as she waited to find out if anything in her apartment was salvageable. She clutched a bag that contained her green card and a few other important papers that she grabbed before rushing out after hearing a smoke alarm.

"All I have is what I'm wearing," Villatoro said, her eyes filling with tears. "I don't even have a dollar."

Villatoro was among the tenants who years ago pressured the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to take action against Deauville Partners, the owners of the building. Aided by a nonprofit advocacy group, the residents had applied pressure for repairs. The tenants association had considered buying the building, but plans fell through and a court battle ensued.

At a news conference yesterday, DCRA Director Linda Argo said the building had "a lot of issues" for many years. "I would call it a troubled building." Argo said, however, that authorities have no reason to suspect that code violations contributed to the fire.

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