A series of fires at an apartment building in Georgetown has left investigators baffled and some tenants upset.
Police reported that five fires have broken out in the last year at the Park Manor apartments at 3039 Q St. NW. The latest blaze occurred last month and was one of at least two fires that investigators described as "very suspicious."
"We don't have many fires at all in the Georgetown area," said Inspector Fred Warton of the District Fire Department's Arson Squad, "but this particular building has had a heck of a lot of them. I can't really explain it."
Warton said at this point he has no leads as to the origin of the fires. "There doesn't appear to be any parttern of any sort to these fires," he said.
Meanwhile, some residents of the Georgetown apartment complex say they are fearful that other fires may occur at any time. Other tenants have told police they consider the fires to be accidental.
Suzanne Salinger, who moved out of the building after the last blaze, said, "I figured after the first couple of fires that it was just a coincidence.But then, there was a third fire and a fourth. Finally, I said to myself, "What's going on here?"
She added, "Of course I was afraid. I couldn't stay there another night, I figured eventually somebody's going to get hurt in one of these fires, and I didn't want it to be me."
Edward Walsh, president of Thomas D. Walsh, Inc., the real estate firm that owns the building, said, "Personally, I don't know anything about it. I'm not getting involved in anything right now. I'm leaving it up to the insurance investigators. And that's all I have to say."
Located two blocks from Dumbarton Oaks Park, the three-story, brick building houses about 40 occupants of varied ages, occupations and incomes.
The complex is rent-controlled. One tenant said he pays $234 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
Last June the first fire occured in a trash can in one of the apartments. No one was home at the time, but the smoldering trash was discovered before it caused any severe damage. Warton said, "I'm pretty sure that fire was an accident."
Then in November a piece of discarded furnture ignited in the basement. Police said they have no idea how the fire started.
After that incident, workmen cleaned out the basement to prevent future blazes. But in December another basement fire occurred, this time in a trash can. "Those fires could have just happened. They could have been a coincidence," Warton said. "I just can't say for sure."
In April, a fire broke out at the top of the second-floor stairwell just outside an apartment. The door and hall were badly charred, and Warton reported that a flammable liquid had apparently been spilled in the area at the time of the blaze. Around that same time, the building received a bomb scare, police reported.
The latest fire occurred last month in the bedroom of a first-floor apartment. Investigators reported that the apartment had apparently been broken into. It occupants were out at the time of the blaze, and nothing was stolen. Firemen found the front door to the apartment ajar, the bedroom in flames and a number of small fires smoldering in an adjoining room.
Investigators said they have not yet determined the cause of the blaze. "We're not really sure if it was a clear-cut case of arson, but it was definitely suspicious," said Sgt. Charles Lintner. "In fact, I might go so far as to say it was highly suspicious."
Some of the apartments occupants were reluctant to discuss fires when contacted last week. "Frankly, I'm frightened," said one tenant, who asked not to be identified. "There's some nut running around here setting fires, and I don't want to be his next victim." Another tenant claimed, "Somebody's trying to drive us out of here."
Other occupants were less quick to blame arson, however. "I feel like these fires must have all been accidents," said Penny Pennypacker, 74, who has lived in the building for 32 years. "This is a nice building and a beautiful place to live. I know all the people who live here. Most of them are good people. And we keep this place locked up tight. Nobody can get in without a key. I just can't believe anyone is setting these fires.
"This thing has upset all of us," she added. "Some of us can't even sleep at night. But we're just kind of marking time, hoping this thing is cleared up."
Lintner said his staff is continuing its investigation but thus far has no suspects and no real leads. "It's a difficult situation for those people," he said. "Any time you have unexplained fires, you have a right to be nervous. And I would say these people have a right to be nervous."