Just when I thought everything that could be written about last Sunday's fire at 1444 W St. NW had been, a new story fell unexpectedly into my lap.
Although, thank God, no one died in the fire the other night, all the survivors found themselves with one thing in common: much of what they owned had been destroyed.
From Raymond Kemmerer, a ground floor resident, to Carrie Hall who lived on a top floor with her two children, the families had nearly every personal item destroyed or damaged.
We all know that a fire, or any similar tragedy, can cause pain and anguish that lingers on for years. But what I didn't know until I was called by the Rev. John Mudd of St. Augustine's Catholic Church was that few, if any, of the tenants of 1444 W St. NW had fire insurance or any kind of protection against loss of the property in their homes.
Many of us in the middle class take fire, theft or health insurance for granted as a necessity. But that is not the case with many of our fellow citizens in the District of Columbia and it certainly was not true for most of the residents who escaped that burning building last Sunday night.
Several of the residents of the building said they had tried to get fire insurance and were told by several companies that they were ineligible for insurance because of the neighborhood where they lived.
"I have tried to get insurance," one 38-year-old mother of four told me. "Although I live on a high-crime street, I worked hard to get what I wanted. I had good furniture and jewelry that belonged to my father when I was a little girl."
Some residents conceded, however, that ignorance about the existence of property insurance for individual apartments combined with an attitude that such specialty insurance was a luxury beyond the means of people with limited income played a role in their lack of insurance. "I came up very poor," said Conrad Dyson. ". . . You paid rent, heat, food and clothes and that was the extent of the bills that you had. Insurance was just a burden, really."
This woman who lost her furniture and jewelry said she had thumbed through the Yellow Pages looking for a company from which to buy insurance. She contacted several: "When I said I lived at 1444 W Street, they told me they are sorry but it is a risky area."
"They told me they could not insure me," said Mable Boler, who lives next door to the aging building that burned and whose 58-year-old aunt lived in the dwelling. "I don't know what happens on the other side of 15th Street," she added, "but on this side, just the mention of 14th Street denies you access to a lot of things. Not because you're a bad tenant or do not make payments, but just because you live in the area they automatically tell you, 'No, we cannot do it.' "
I had heard of insurers taking that position, but decided to investigate for myself whether the allegations were true.
I randomly called several insurance companies and asked if they in fact refuse to write policies in designated high-crime areas of the city. Most of the companies I called said they issue insurance to people no matter where they live.
Speaking of the poor, Prudential salesman Sam Baker said "they need it even more" than affluent people. Another insurance agent, who asked not to be identified, denied that his company ever refused to issue insurance to residents who live in high-crime areas. He did say that his company denies theft insurance to residents of ground floor apartments anywhere.
I later called the Insurance Department of the District of Columbia to learn if they had any complaints of insurance denials from District renters.
According to one representative of that office, no official complaints have been brought by D.C. renters. I also got a piece of valuable information from the director of that office. Any District resident denied household insurance, or any insurance on the open market, should contact the D.C. Property Insurance Facility at 393-4640. Through this office, insurance can be acquired under a special "Fair Plan."
Although I felt better knowing that residents who live in so-called bad neighborhoods can obtain insurance by contacting this office, it did not erase my sympathy and sorrow for the residents of 1444 W St. NW who could have obtained insurance if only they had known how to go about it.