When Nicolás Gutman woke up to the sound of screaming, he assumed it was just the usual late-night carousing in his eight-person Dupont Circle group house. “I thought, Fuck it, they don’t let me sleep,” says the 30-year-old native of Argentina. “Next thing I remember, there is this girl Ivana standing in front of my bed naked and screaming.”
There was a fire, Ivana said. She grabbed some clothes, and Gutman got the fire extinguisher from the hallway outside his basement room, then climbed the stairs to the second floor. “I didn’t see any fire, just thick smoke, and it was very hot. I got kind of hypnotized….I couldn’t breathe already, and I wasn’t in the smoke.”
Gutman gave up any thoughts of putting out the fire and retreated to the basement. He put the extinguisher back, unused, and then called 911. The voice he heard was a recording.
“I was on hold for a long time,” he says. “It was a recorded message, and some kind of music….I know it was for a while. I was staring at my closet.” He hung up, called again, and got the same recording. Gutman decided to just get out of the house.
On the third floor, his housemate Anthony York had waked up, opened his door to see flames, and quickly retreated to the window. He jumped, landing in a small, enclosed space on the basement level, between his row house and the adjoining one. “I thought, Maybe I can just wait it out here for a little while while they put out the fire,” York says. “Then embers started falling from the roof.”
York, who was bleeding, naked, and in considerable pain from a broken heel and fractured bones in his back, noticed a door to his right. He tried to turn the handle, but the door was blocked from the inside.
“I heard Anthony yelling, ‘Get me out of here! Help, help!’” says Gutman. Gutman cleared the way to the door and helped York into the basement. They exited into the back yard, jumped a fence, and landed in an alley behind the house.
Three more housemates, Christopher Nieto, Topher Bellavia, and Glenford Warmington, climbed down a fire ladder thrown onto a second-floor balcony by two neighbors. “We went down to the front sidewalk,” Bellavia says. “At that point, I either noticed or realized that Christopher Duncan[-Smith] was sitting on the front steps. His skin was peeling off, kind of like Saran Wrap. You could still see his tattoos.”
The housemates believe that the fire started in Duncan-Smith’s room and that he got trapped inside trying to put it out. They think that he then tried to crawl out of the house, suffering critical burns over his entire body in the process.
“When I visited Chris in the hospital, he reached out for me, and he was in all these bandages,” says Bellavia. “All these monitors started going off and making all this noise, and he had these pleading eyes.”
Duncan-Smith, a 24-year-old who was working as a waiter, died on Jan. 17 as a result of the severe burns.
York and Gutman estimate that after they first got out of the house, it took another 10 or 15 minutes for any firetrucks to arrive.
“We got there, and the first, second, and third floors were fully involved,” says Chet Barrett of Rescue Squad 1, who was one of the first firefighters on the scene. “By the time we got to the first floor, the fire had burned so long there were already holes through the floor. It was obvious that the fire had burned a long time before we got there, which is unusual. Some of the people said they called like 15 minutes before and couldn’t get through to communications.”
“The first dozen or so calls that came in were answered, and help was on the way,” says Alan Etter, a spokesperson for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services. Etter says that investigators have not been able to go inside the structure because of the extent of damage.
“After I climbed out…I kind of looked back into my room and said goodbye to all my stuff,” says Bellavia. “I thought, I’m never going to see any of this ever again. And in that moment, I was not upset at all. I was just like, There it goes.” CP