Mount Pleasant did some soul searching yesterday at memorial services for nine neighbors killed last week during a fire at at boarding house for mental outpatients.
"In the five years that I've lived around here no one asked questions like what kind of care are they receiving," Pat Ahern told mourners gathered in front of the burned-out remains of the Lamont Street NW referral home for outpatients from St. Elizabeths Hospital.
"I never knew if they had a fire escape or not. I just assumed they did. Some of us even heard their complaints, but we did very little about them."
Mount Pleasant, roughly located between 16th Street NW and the National Zoo, houses some of the city's most affluent and politically active citizens as well as some not-so-affluent people. Also in residence are hundreds of outpatients from area mental hospitals and former convicts released from Lorton.
Often neglected and abused, the outpatients live in an isolated, blurry gray world of foster care facilities scattered throughtout the area.
"It's hard to say how they fit in," said Hendrik Browne, a housing renovator who lives across the street from the home at 1715 Lamont Street. "Let's face it, if they had been skilled at fitting in, they wouldn't have been there . . ."
Still, Andre Keels, another neighbor, recalled that some of the women wer at times so sharp and well-reasoned as to "threaten that space between sanity and insanity."
"My relationship with them was fascinating. One woman was teaching me the names of flowers and their origins," Keels recalled.
About 75 residents-bankers, political consultants, builders and tradesmen-attended yesterday's simple, curbside service for the victims of the fire. Some skipped regular Easter ceremonies to attend the memorial service, which included prayers led by clergymen from several denominations.
Denise Hilton, the supervisor on duty the night the fire started, was absent. "I think it's for health reasons." an associate said. "This has been traumatic."
The elderly women outpatients at the home had become fixtures on Lamont Street since the foster care facility opened in 1963.
Even in winter, as snow flurried about them, groups of women could be seen huddled together outdoors smoking cigarettes. They banded together for protection against muggers and other bandits and were keen daytime sentries for the neighborhood.
"I felt good about having them around," Brone, the buildner, said. "They were always out and that had a lot to do with minimizing crime. They were nice old ladies who added to the overall tone of the neighborhood."
Cliff Mitchell, a former therapist at St. Elizabeths Hospital, reminded neighbors that the mental facility, within only a few years had reduced its population from more than 7,000 to around 2,000 patients.
"Basically, they've just been pushed out onto us, so we have so stop pointing fingers of blame and get involved. The reason these places are overcrowded is because nobody wants a place like this in their neighborhood," he said.
"Let's not be rash, let's not be too critical, lest we push these people back into the institutions. I see people out here now who have been in institutions for 20 years and are getting their first chance to be normal."
After the fire, the surviving patients were sent back to St. Elizabth's.
Three of the six patients injured in the fire remained in the Washington Hospital Center yesterday. Two were reported in critical condition and one was listed as fair.
"There wasn't anything wrong with some of those women," said Alice Cooke, who lives on Kilbourne Street. "They just didn't have a place to live. Nobody wanted them. You never saw people who enjoyed a fresh breeze, an afternoon walk and a cigarette like they did."
Pat Ahern concluded: "In a sense, we all must bear some of the responsibility for what happend."
D.C. City Council member Dave Clarke, who lives around the corner from where the fire occurred, urged his constituency to renew their "conmitment to our fellow neighbors and reap the rewards that flow from respect." CAPTION: Picture 1, in front of the outpatient home on Lamont Street NW where nine women died in a fire last week. By John McDonnell, The Washington Post; Picture 2, Neighbors come to pay their respects at the service in front of the home. By John McDonnell, The Washington Post; Picture 3, Lamon Street NW is thronged for the memorial service in front of the burned-out home. By John McDonnell, The Washington Post