The death of a baby boy in a Columbia Heights apartment fire early Sunday has triggered an investigation and an inquiry into how the District government should respond when a family's electricity is cut off, city officials said yesterday.
Deputy Mayor for Operations Herbert R. Tillery said he hopes to determine by tomorrow whether the D.C. Energy Office responded too slowly to a request from the baby's mother for help in paying an overdue utility bill, or whether the city should consider additional ways to aid poor families whose power is cut off.
"There's a lot that needs to be reviewed before we start appointing blame," Tillery said.
Ten-month-old Jonah Flores died in his crib in a two-bedroom apartment that had been without electric power for six days because the family owed $491 on its utility bill. His mother, Fritzie Flores, left a candle burning in his bedroom because, she said, Jonah did not like the dark.
D.C. fire investigators have not yet ruled on whether the candle started the blaze.
Flores, 20, sought help from the Energy Office on Tuesday, the day after the power was turned off. A supervisor approved a $400 payment late Thursday and left the paperwork for another employee to forward to Pepco. But that employee and two others were absent Friday, the supervisor said Sunday. The paperwork remained in a drawer through the weekend.
Flores and her mother, Maria Vasquez, 40, went out to see friends Saturday night, leaving Vasquez's 83-year-old mother, Zoila Vasquez, to watch the sleeping Jonah, his 2-year-old brother and Maria Vasquez's other daughters, ages 12 and 4.
After the fire was reported at 3:15 a.m., Zoila Vasquez and the three older children were rescued, but firefighters could not reach Jonah through smoke and flames.
Yesterday, Flores and Maria Vasquez were at a hotel paid for by the Red Cross. Their children were in the custody of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. A cousin, Claudia Vasquez, said that Flores was devastated by her baby's death and that both women were "confused" about why caseworkers took away their surviving children.
"We're all hurting," she said.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) appealed to the public for donations of clothing and other basics for the family. He said a funeral home would provide a memorial service without charge.
Officials at Pepco and the Energy Office declined to discuss the case, citing the city probe. Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin said cutting off power for nonpayment -- which happened 9,400 times last year and 4,700 times since January -- is a last resort.
The Energy Office distributed more than $8.6 million in utility assistance to 21,000 poor households in the past 12 months, spokeswoman Sharon Cooke said. Officials said the Vasquez household received $721 toward an overdue bill earlier this year.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which studies programs to assist poor families with spiraling energy costs, said: "D.C. actually has good programs. That's what's so sad." The city this year added $2 million in local assistance to the $6.6 million it received in federal funds.
As utilities have deregulated and energy costs have risen, the number of families who are cut off has increased, Wolfe said.
"Utilities have become much more aggressive," he said. "We're going from a system that had embedded subsidies and much more of a community service orientation to one that has much more of a market-based approach."
Mayoral spokesman Vincent Morris said the city may ask Pepco to contact government offices directly before cutting off power to residents. And Tillery said the government may consider handing out flashlights or battery-powered lanterns to families for use until electricity is restored.
Tillery said he would also examine the way the request for assistance was handled.
"Is that a part of the process, to put it in a drawer?" he said of the family's paperwork. "Are they supposed to check the drawer? Those are the things I'm trying to figure out."
Staff writer Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.