- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

An electrical failure caused an early-morning fire to roar through a home in Northeast on Thursday, killing two children and three adults and leaving an 11-year-old in extremely grave condition, D.C. officials said.

“It’s probably the worst way any of us could imagine starting a new year,” Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said Thursday afternoon in front of the burned-out home on Jackson Street. “This is one of the greatest tragedies this city has ever faced.”

D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said officials received multiple reports of a fire on the 1000 block of Jackson Street in Northeast just after 7 a.m. Personnel arrived within one minute and found flames and smoke emanating from the two-story, single-family home.

Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, said nine people were in the home at the time of the fire. Those killed in the blaze were identified as Joseph Wilson, 10; Kaniya Gant, 5; Kaniya’s mother and father, Tawanna Gant, 22, and Keith Nelson, 23; and Charles Smith, 72.

Authorities were not sure of the relationship among the boy, the elder man and the other three victims, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Etter said an 11-year-old boy was taken from the house to Children’s National Medical Center in grave condition. He said Thursday evening that reports that the boy had died were incorrect.

Three others — adults Oscar and Michelle Wilson and a 15-year-old boy — were taken to a hospital with injuries that were not considered life-threatening.

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Dennis L. Rubin said the blaze resulted from an accidental electrical failure between the home’s basement and first floor.

He said the balloon-frame construction of the house — a style popular in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s that he said would not be allowed under safety standards today — allowed the fire to move rapidly and threaten a home next door.

About 120 firefighters battled the two-alarm blaze, which Mr. Etter said was extinguished within an hour. Officials had not determined whether the home contained working smoke alarms.

“By the time the fire department was even notified, this was a very well involved structure,” Mr. Etter said. “The fire had a huge jump on us.”

Rosa Page, a neighbor who lives on the opposite side of Jackson Street, said she called 911 after seeing smoke coming from the house.

“The only thing I saw … from the back window of my house was smoke and people calling for help,” said Mrs. Page, 83, who heard cries from those inside. “After I came downstairs, [firefighters] were already here.”

The fire is the second recent tragedy to affect family members who were inside the home. Taleshia Ford, Oscar and Michelle Wilson’s 17-year-old daughter, was fatally shot in January 2007 at a nightclub in Northwest.

Outside the home Thursday, Christmas lights remained wrapped around white wooden posts on the porch, while workers removed debris strewn on the yard.

A white shoe with a dark stripe lay on the roof hanging over the porch deck. A plastic Tonka truck was taken from the yard and placed into a portable trash bin.

“I’m hurt,” Dionne West, a cousin of Tawanna’s, said amid tears. “It’s just sad that we’ve got to start the new year like this.”

Mr. Fenty appeared at the home along with D.C. Council members Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, and Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat.

Tawanna Gant worked in Mr. Thomas’ office. Mr. Graham said he remembered being in the same home two years ago, grieving Taleshia’s death, which occurred in his ward.

“You’re left kind of speechless with this level of tragedy, and particularly since it has twice visited this house,” Mr. Graham said.

The deaths put the District precariously close to the total of seven fire fatalities in the city last year. Officials said they plan to distribute smoke alarms in the Northeast neighborhood, and Mr. Thomas promised to “do something in honor of this family.”

“Just a couple hours before the fire broke out they were celebrating the new year like the rest of us,” Mr. Fenty said. “So I think it is still a reminder of how precious life is, how quickly things can turn wrong, and [how] we have to all love and appreciate each other while we have each other here on this earth.”

The AP said damage from the fire is estimated at $250,000.

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