- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2001

A three-alarm fire that caused $2.5 million in damage to the Estonian Embassy in Northwest was ruled accidental yesterday.
The blaze, which broke out Monday night, was caused by a shorted electrical wire in the wall of the utility room in the basement, fire investigators said. No one was inside the building, located at 2131 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the fire was confined to the walls, but fire and smoke poured out of the east side of the four-story, five-level building. Some documents, office materials, artwork, chandeliers and leather furniture were lost in the fire, but there is intricate woodwork that probably can be salvaged. The investigation has been turned over to an insurance company.
Since the embassy is considered Estonian soil, fire investigators needed permission to enter the building. Mr. Etter said the caretaker asked the fire officials to go in after the fire was extinguished.
Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. cleanup crews worked throughout the day yesterday to clean up the broken glass, charred wood and other debris strewn about the house and sidewalk.
Miko Haljas, second secretary at the embassy, helped direct cleaning crews and communicate with officials in Estonia about the fire. He said the deputy prime minister of Estonia heard about the damage and promised the building would be fully restored.
Mr. Haljas said officials are searching for alternative office space for the embassy's nine employees. The Estonian ambassador to the United States, Sven Jrgenson, was out of the country at the time of the fire.
While only three alarms were called, Mr. Etter said the fire drew more than 80 firefighters and rescue squad workers, the equivalent of a four-alarm fire.
Mr. Etter said personnel probably responded to an initial call from an automatic fire alarm in the 96-year-old building, and bystanders called the police to report smoke coming from the basement of the building about 7:30 p.m.
Traffic was blocked off in the Dupont Circle area until about 1 a.m. from Sheridan Circle to 19 Street NW and from Florida Avenue NW to P Street NW.
One firefighter was injured when he fell off some steps. He was released from George Washington University Hospital, Mr. Etter said.
Even though a fire such as this has happened before, Mr. Haljas said it should not be considered ordinary.
"The old [apartment] building across the street caught on fire a year or so ago," Mr. Haljas said. "Fire is never normal, but I guess it happens."
Other Washington embassies — many of which, like the Estonian Embassy, are housed in old mansions — also have been damaged by accidental fires and arson. In January, a similar three-alarm electrical fire gutted the Algerian Embassy in Adams Morgan. Officials at the Algerian Embassy said yesterday they have temporarily moved to another building while the other building is restored.
In 1995, a vacant building owned by the Turkish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW caught fire. Three firefighters were rescued from the burning debris in that incident.
The Liberian Embassy was damaged by an electrical fire in 1990, though many Liberians questioned whether the fire was accidental. In 1985, the Nicaraguan Embassy was broken into and set ablaze. The same year, the Costa Rican Embassy was torched as the ambassador's family slept. Seven persons were injured in the fire. The ambassador was away at the time.

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