- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

D.C. investigators brought in federal bomb specialists and an accelerant-sniffing dog to help discover the cause of a fast-moving, early morning fire that killed two young girls and injured three other people Saturday morning. Fire officials said they have not ruled out the possibility of arson.

A massive blaze broke out at 446 Lamont St. NW at about 8:45 a.m. and killed two girls, 8-year-old Kenisha Blanchard and her 7-year-old half-sister Tionna Blanchard. Both were found dead on the second floor one near a front bedroom window and one near the top of the stairs.

Witnesses and family said the children were frightened and disoriented and pleaded for help, but fire engulfed their small bodies in a matter of seconds, warding off any would-be rescuers.

Neighbor Thomas Haston tried to get Tionna to jump out of the second-floor bedroom window, but the heat was too intense for her to raise it. He got a ladder and he and a police officer raced around the house to the back alley and tried to get to the girls through a rear window. An explosion shattered the windows before they could set up the ladder. At that point, the girls were beyond saving.

The mother of the two girls, Nadia Blanchard, was standing outside the house during the worst of the blaze, catching her three other children, who were being tossed down to her by her husband, William Miller, whose back was burned during the ordeal.

The family clarified details yesterday that they said were misconstrued by public safety officials.

Simonne Blanchard, the aunt of the two dead children, said there were seven children and five adults in the house at the time of the fire, not five adults and five children.

She said the fire started near two new mattresses stored in the front room. The house next door at 448 Lamont St. NW also suffered damage to the roof, basement and a few windows. The family and next-door neighbors are now staying at a local hotel.

Some residents, who say they are used to small-time drug dealing and prostitution in the neighborhood, said the fire may have been a dispute over drugs. Some witnesses said they saw someone near the house before the fire who may have thrown something into the house, possibly a cocktail bomb. D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter would not confirm or deny the report.

Well-wishers created a makeshift altar in front of the house yesterday of stuffed animals, flowers and cards while neighbors retold the story of the fire over and over to anyone who would listen. Traffic was heavier than usual on the street as drivers slowed down to peek at the charred remnants.

Neighbors said the Blanchard family's house was one of three row houses on the street that had people coming and going at all hours.

Charles Jolley, who lives across the street from the burned building, said he has been battling for two years to bring neighborhood drug-dealing problems to the attention of authorities.

He complained to council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, and D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, asking for increased patrols.

Although some help has come from the efforts of Mr. Jolley and other neighbors, he thinks more help would have arrived if the neighborhood was not a primarily black area.

"Over across 16th Street they treat them like champs. Over here we are the forgotten soldiers," Mr. Jolley said.

The family said they did not know anyone who dealt drugs and the heavy traffic was family and friends who needed a place to stay.

Simonne Blanchard said the house had three fire detectors that didn't work due to faulty wiring and the landlord did not address maintenance issues in the row house promptly.

Mr. Graham said the neighborhood is in police service area 414, one of the highest-crime areas in the 4th District. He has been in contact with city police commanders. He said the police patrols have increased from a six-man unit to 25. But he said the assistance has come too little, too late.

"There is a demand for better protection. Two years ago when I took office I was proposing. Now I'm demanding," Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Graham spoke with the Blanchard family yesterday afternoon and is trying to find them new housing. He said he is awaiting a response from police officials for increased patrols, but does not think the family was engaged in any drug activity.

The deceased children's godmother, Zulieka More, said she wonders why counseling has not been offered to the family, friends or witnesses.

In front of the shell of the house she vented her frustration, saying that her nieces and nephews can't get the gruesome scenes out of their memory.

"We adults have outlets. They don't," Ms. More said.

"If this would have happened in Adams Morgan or some other richer neighborhood, there would have been counseling here when the Red Cross got here."

The building is owned by a group of men from Maryland. One of the owners, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he had problems with the tenants and was trying to evict them. He said seven people were officially on the lease, yet 12 people were in the house at the time of the fire.

He said the crowded conditions caused constant maintenance problems and he had complained to Section 8 housing supervisors. He said the damage is covered by insurance, but he does not know what he will do with the building.

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