Prosecutors to look into fatal DC fire at unlicensed apartment building

fire damage in 700 block of Kennedy Street Northwest
Sunday morning’s blaze in the 700 block of Kennedy Street Northwest claimed the life of one tenant, a man from Ethiopia. A 9-year-old boy badly injured in the blaze, identified as Yafet Solomon, died later. (Courtesy DC Fire and EMS)

D.C. and federal prosecutors will investigate Sunday morning’s fatal fire in an unlicensed apartment building.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Wednesday that she has referred the matter to both District and federal attorneys.

The blaze in the 700 block of Kennedy Street Northwest claimed the life of one tenant, an man from Ethiopia. A 9-year-old boy badly injured in the blaze, identified as Yafet Solomon, died later.

About eight people had been living in the two-story row house, D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Day told reporters Wednesday. The structure had narrow halls, broken smoke detectors and barred exits, authorities said, complicating firefighters’ attempts to clear the building.

The overcrowded row house was mostly filled with Ethiopian immigrants working to send money to their families. The tenants told regulatory officials that the building was partitioned into a dozen tiny rooms, some no larger than a queen-sized mattress, reports The Associated Press.

“The District will not tolerate landlords who prey on vulnerable populations, operating unlicensed rental properties and showing no concern for people’s safety,” Bowser said in a statement. “My administration is conducting a comprehensive investigation of the property owner to identify any other rental properties and whether they are housing people in dangerous conditions.”

The Washington Post reported that the property’s owner, James G. Walker, owns other residences in Northwest D.C. and West Baltimore.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. D.C. police, D.C. Fire and EMS, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are collaborating in the fire investigation.

Bowser also appealed to the public to report any unlicensed-rental situations, even if they live inside one. “We will work with them on getting into safe living conditions, because there is no amount of cheap housing that’s worth losing a child,” Bowser told reporters Wednesday.

D.C. rental properties are required to provide the following:

  • Interconnected smoke alarms on every level and inside each sleeping room
  • At least one working fire extinguisher
  • Carbon monoxide detector
  • Exits, including doors and windows, that can be opened from the inside without the need for keys or any special knowledge or effort
  • Electrical outlets, switches and fixtures that work properly
  • For high rise buildings, a fire safety evacuation plan, along with fire drills at least once per year
  • At least one exterior emergency escape for every sleeping room below the fourth floor

To make a complaint or provide a tip, call the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at (202) 442-9557, or dial 311.

WTOP’s Michelle Basch contributed to this report.

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