- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

D.C. fire officials said they might never know what ignited a two-alarm fire that destroyed a three-story historic brick house in Northwest yesterday morning.

The intensity of the blaze that began in the basement at 15th and Swann streets prevented firefighters from entering the structure initially, and probably consumed all evidence that would have helped investigators locate the cause of the fire, said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department.

No one was in the house when the fire began.

Joseph Howard, 82, who has lived in the house for 37 years, said he started the stove in the basement and then went to the grocery store about four blocks away. When he returned, he found his house on fire.

He said he thinks someone started the fire.

“Somebody said they wanted to get rid of me,” said Mr. Howard, a former chaplain at D.C. General Hospital. He said someone who owns many properties in the community wanted to take over his house, and that some neighbors objected to charitable goods deposited in front of his house.

Mr. Howard said he collected goods for the needy in the community.

Neighbor Tarpley Long said she heard an explosion. “I just got up and was fixing some oatmeal. … Then the trucks started coming,” she said.

A sign in front of the building reads, “First Aframerican Church Episcopal. By making the world safe for black people, making the world safe for all people. The Hush Arbor Church.”

The house with iron bars across arched windows and doors was built in the 1850s, the first of a row of brick houses east along Swann Street. The iron bars prevented firefighters from gaining easy entrance, and then they found the first floor near collapse.

“It got too great a start,” Battalion Chief George R. Donahue Jr. said. “[The firefighters] did a good job to keep it out of the other buildings.”

Eleven firetrucks and 120 firefighters responded to the 10 a.m. call. Smoke from the fire could be seen as far as Union Station. The wooden structure and the building contents were charcoal black when firefighters left 2 hours later.

Neighbors offered to help Mr. Howard.

Earlene Taylor, whose husband is a minister at St. James Restoration Apostle Church of Christ in God on 15th Street Northwest, said Mr. Howard will stay with them.

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