- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Ivania Vasquez is just 10 years old, but family members say her decision to calmly call 911 helped save the lives of hundreds of residents inside their Mount Pleasant apartment building, which was destroyed by a massive fire in the middle of the night.

“We just heard the fire alarms go off,” said her sister, Mayra, 25, the first in the family’s third-floor apartment to smell smoke late Wednesday night as she was studying.

“My life is on hold,” said Miss Vasquez, a native of El Salvador and a resident of the Winston Apartments for 13 years.

The fire, in the 3100 block of Mount Pleasant Street Northwest, destroyed much of the four-story structure and the neighboring Meridian Hill Baptist Church.

Hundreds of firefighters from the District, Maryland and Virginia responded. Some of the first-responders rushed into the smoke-filled building to help residents escape while others attached ladders to the building to help those on higher floors climb down to safety.

Abigail Escobar said she quickly fled with her two young children after being awakened by a neighbor who knocked on the door.

“I only grabbed the children, who had no shoes, no anything, and we ran down the stairs,” she said.

Most of damage was to the fourth floor, but fire officials are not sure where the fire started or the cause.

D.C. fire department Chief Dennis L. Rubin said investigators will need about a week to secure the building before they can determine what started the blaze. He said investigators have conducted more than 70 interviews and that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also is investigating.

Mr. Rubin said fire alarms in the building appeared to be working. However, Linda Argo, director of D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said the agency found 490 code violations in the building in early 2007.

D.C. Fire Marshal Gary L. Palmer Jr. said the first trucks were dispatched at 11:45 p.m., and the second of five alarms was called at 12:03 a.m.

Mr. Rubin said the city’s last five-alarm fire was on March 31, 1979, at the vacant Kann’s department store, downtown on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.

The fire Wednesday night also spread to two other apartment buildings behind the church before being brought under control after nearly three hours.

“We needed more firefighters and trucks,” said Mr. Palmer.

A firefighter and female resident were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. Mr. Palmer said the firefighter apparently suffered from smoke inhalation.

The building continued to smolder yesterday morning as residents in the largely Hispanic community returned to collect their belongings.

Several D.C. agencies were called to help the roughly 80 families left homeless.

Spanish-English language translators assisted residents — some still in pajamas — make lists of essential belongings and tag them to door keys so firefighters could attempt to retrieve the items from the building.

Officials late yesterday declared the building a total loss. The flames that shot through the top of the apartment building had showered the nearby church, damaging the roof.

The church is home to an Ethiopian community center and a woman’s shelter, which also was evacuated Wednesday night.

The Vasquez family and others were taken three blocks away to an emergency shelter at the Columbia Heights Center, at 14th and Girard streets Northwest.

Others were taken to two nearby restaurants — Haydee’s and Don Juan. An employee at Haydee’s said the displaced residents were allowed to stay until city officials closed the restaurant.

“We’re blessed that no civilians were injured,” Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said at a news conference.

The fire also closed nearby roads and cause delays for morning commuters, particularly on 16th Street Northwest, a major road into the downtown area. The street was reopened at 3:20 p.m.

The Neighbor’s Consejo center, at 3118 16th St. NW, is taking donations of food and clothing and is where volunteers can go to help.

City officiasl said four landlords have already offered rent-free, fully furnished apartments.

Miss Vasquez said the building alarms had not been working properly for several months and sometimes were turned off.

She also said firefighters were called to the building a few weeks ago after a drunken homeless woman started a fire. The woman had been living without permission in an apartment left vacant by another woman vacationing in California, she said.

About two weeks ago, pamphlets were distributed to low-income residents, urging them to move out, Miss Vasquez said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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