The house fire in which nine persons died Jan. 26 in the District's Mount Pleasant neighborhood was caused by a "disgraceful condition of life," according to a survivor who spoke last night at a memorial service for the victims.
Daniel Del Valle and other speakers from the Latino community, churches and city government discussed the tragedy of the victims trapped in flames, but also the troubles of Washington's thousands of undocumented refugees.
Speaking to about 75 people at All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets NW, Stanley Allen of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1-E asked how it is "possible that many of us have looked the other way when so many in our community need better housing . . . . Is it possible that even the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs has failed in its responsibility to the Latino community?"
Allen added that "it is sad that we would have to wait until a tragedy like this to demand better housing for the people of the District of Columbia."
The fire raged through the basement of a three-story row house about 3 a.m. Jan. 26, when most of the victims were asleep. Afterward, interviews in the neighborhood revealed that crowded conditions are common in Mount Pleasant, which has a high population of refugees.
The fire victims included two Americans, Teresa Williams and Melissa Cole; a Nicaraguan, Julio Cesar Garcia, and six Salvadorans, Jose Anselmo Cruz, his brother Vicente Cruz, Anastasio Chicas, Baltazar Salmeron, Jorge Villator and Manuel Ayala.
"We must take credit for the fact that [the refugees] chose our community," said City Council member Frank Smith. "But we must share the blame and the shame that we were not big enough to receive them."
Smith then said that "the war in El Salvador must end, and the U.S. government must stop its intervention policy. The bombs that drop in El Salvador explode in Mount Pleasant."
The service was sponsored by the Central American Refugee Center, which supplies legal aid for refugees and handles their applications for political asylum. Two of the Salvadorans who died in the fire, Vincente and Jose Cruz, were clients of the center, according to Development Director Benjamin Davis.
"Because of their fear of being deported, [refugees] are afraid or reluctant to complain about unsafe working conditions or unfair landlords, and even fear going to hospitals," Davis said of the city's Central American refugees, which the center estimates at 80,000.
Carmen Monico of the Salvadoran Refugee Committee said that the suffering of the fire victims and their families "is the same pain of the 60,000 victims of the war in El Salvador."
Monico said that because the refugees cannot work legally, "we live in the kind of situation in which these people have died. We are looking to change the situation."