A 21-year-old man was aspyxiated in a fire in his Southeast apartment early yesterday, his escape blocked by window bars constructed to keep him secure.
The charred body of Robert Belton, a musician was found at the base of his bedroom window after neighbors, alerted by smoke and his screams, struggled futilely to break down the bars. A District medical examiner ruled that Belton died of smoke inhalation.
Two other adults, John Void, 23, and Diane Bush, 22, escaped from a second bedroom when Void ripped out the bars on his window with his hands. Bush and Void were also able to pass three small children through the window, according to neighbors who rushed to the scene.
"We ran outside and (Void and Bush) were hollering that someone was still inside," said Frederick Hooks, who lives directly above the basement apartment where the fire occured. By the time he got to the sealed window. Hooks said, he could see nothing inside but smoke and fire.
Firemen responding to the 2 a.m. blaze confined the fire damage to the basement apartment of the four-story Oxford Manor apartment building at 2609 Bowen Rd. SE. Belton and Void's apartment was gutted. Several upstairs apartments were damaged by smoke.
Firemen said a policeman was first on the scene and found Belton tugging desperately at the bars. By the time firemen arrived, the apartment was engulfed and "anybody inside would been dead," said Sgt. Robert O'Neil, who led a crew into the building.
Firemen rescued people from the roof of the building, including Yvonne Craig, a clerk-tyist. "I could hear him (Belton) hollering for help, over and over, and I thought he's trapped, too, and I'm gonna die," Craig said. Smoke and heat were so intense "the stairs felt like they were melting," she said.
The fire broke out in the kitchen of the two-bedroom apartment, according to firemen, and apparently trapped Belton in his bedroom.
The bars had been placed over the window in recent years because of repeated break-ins, according to neighbors. The Oxford Manor company manages a number of similar garden apartments in the block, and all the basement windows are barred.
"People threatened with burglaries break-ins, assaults think a rather simpler way to resolve it is to put bars on windows, but we recommend that they think twice before locking themselves in," said John Breen, a senior fire department official.At least tow other people her have died in similar circumstances in the last two years, he siad.
For a few dollars more, Breen said, a tenant or property owner can install bars with a latch that can be opened from the inside.
The bars were already in place when Belton and Void moved into the apartment a few months ago, according to neighbors.
The Oxford Manor apartments are located in the Berry Farms section of Southeast, which police and residents say is one of the tougher areas of the city.
"I've had three break-ins in the last two years," said Nellie Lee, who lives above the burned-out apartment. "You got a tot of vandalism, robberies and rape. My sister was robbed in broad daylight. You got all kinds of people out there."
Belton, according to neighbors, played the guitar for a group at The Panorama Room, a club on Morris Road, SE.
Bush frequently visited Void and brought along her three children, neighbors said. Both Bush and Void were treated for smoke inhalation and cuts suffered when they scrambled through their smashed out windows.