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D.C. mayor asks federal prosecutors to launch criminal investigation into deadly fire

This home on Kennedy Street NW was gutted in a fire Sunday, Aug. 18.
This home on Kennedy Street NW was gutted in a fire Sunday, Aug. 18. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is asking federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation into Sunday’s fire that killed two people, including a child, at a rowhouse crowded with Ethiopian immigrants and lacking approval for rental units.

The announcement of the stepped-up inquiry came hours after a 9-year-old boy was removed from life support and died at a hospital. A 40-year-old man died the day of the fire.

The request could lead to added resources for the complex investigation into how the fire started and the building’s conditions. Regulatory officials said the rowhouse at 708 Kennedy St. NW had been occupied by tenants who described a building partitioned into a dozen tiny rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Officials said that there were no working smoke detectors and that bars covered windows and doors.

“I’m heartbroken that people felt like they were in a trap,” Bowser told reporters. “They want to live in this country and make their way and help their families, and they were taken advantage of. This message is to property owners and landlords: we are very serious about this investigation. If there is criminal activity here, it will be fully prosecuted.”

The mayor added, “There is no amount of cheap housing that’s worth losing a child.”

Property records and authorities identified the property owner as James G. Walker. Efforts to reach him on Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Police identified the boy as Yafety Solomon. Tenants interviewed earlier this week said he lived in the basement with his mother. She was staying Wednesday with a friend who described her as too distraught to speak publicly. The friend said all the family’s photos were destroyed in the blaze.

Rowhouse in fatal fire had no approved for rental units

The other victim was identified by his brother and sister as Fitsum Kebede. Authorities have not yet released his name, though his brother shared an email from the D.C. medical examiner’s office informing the family in Ethiopia that Kebede had been identified through fingerprints.

The victim’s sister, Sawit Kebede, 36, who lives in South Africa, vowed to press for answers. “People die, but this is a very inhumane way of dying,” she said by telephone. “We will do whatever it takes to get answers. This is not fair. We’re not going to let this go. We’re not.”

In addition to contacting the U.S. attorney’s office, the mayor also said she would refer the case to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, which handles criminal cases arising out of building code or licensing infractions. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said on Twitter that his office was “pursuing the matter.” A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office did not immediately respond to inquiries about the request.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been involved in the investigation from the start as part of an existing agreement to assist on all serious and fatal fires in the District. A cause has not yet been determined.

At Wednesday’s news conference, D.C. Fire Chief Gregory M. Dean described how rescue efforts were hampered as firefighters worked to find tenants and extinguish the fire. He said when firefighters broke through the front door, they encountered a second door, and then bars blocking a hallway that they had to saw through to reach people inside.

Fire officials have described a complex layout, and tenants said doors to some adjacent rooms could not open at the same time in the cramped hallways. Dean said the “illegal occupancy means regular exiting is not the same. Trying to provide locked areas for everybody . . . plays against you when you have a fire.”

Many of the occupants of the Kennedy Street rowhouse worshiped at Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Ethio­pian Orthodox Church in Northwest. Kebede did odd jobs for the church and put the money toward his rent, other tenants said.

While many of the people who lived there had come to the United States seeking work to provide for their families in Ethi­o­pia, Kebede had come about 14 years ago for a far different reason. He and his then-wife hoped he could continue the successful career in information technology he had begun in Ethi­o­pia.

Sawit Kebede said her brother was the brightest in the family, excelling at math and among the top of his class at private schools and at a university. His father worked for four decades for Ethiopian Airlines, developing new cargo routes, and for a time the family lived in India. He had a son, had a good job and built his own house.

“He was the kid who had it all,” Sawit Kebede said.

She said he sold his belongings and the couple moved to the U.S. sometime around 2005, against the wishes of other relatives. They divorced about five years later. He lived in several states and returned to Ethi­o­pia to visit in 2017.

Kebede returned to the U.S., telling relatives he had been accepted into a master’s program, though no one knew if he ever took classes. He moved to the District and gradually lost touch with his family. Word of his death came slowly.

Police initially had little information and his brother, Brook Kebede, said the family first heard through a member of the church in the District that their relative may have died. He said authorities at first only provided a last name, and they described agonizing days believing their brother had died, but not knowing with certainty.

They were thousands of miles away and unsure of investigative protocols in the United States. It wasn’t until Wednesday they could confirm Kebede had died. Now, they are unsure if they should try to come to the District and meet with detectives.

The siblings said their parents are elderly and their father is ailing. “It’s really tough,” Brook Kebede said. “He has a son he hasn’t been in contact with for a while, and all of a sudden you hear he’s not alive.”

Added Sawit Kebede: “We have a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

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