A bedroom fire in an F Street townhouse left one local woman dead and one firefighter injured early Sunday morning.
Vera Kunsak, 92, known as the “pigeon lady” to some students, was presumed dead on arrival at about 1:15 a.m., said Kevin Stuart, a D.C. firefighter who responded to the scene.
The causes of the fire and death are still under investigation, but Stuart said most house fire fatalities are a result of asphyxiation from toxic smoke. Kunsak was apparently in bed sleeping when the fire started.
Lt. Richard Kowalczyk said firefighter Derek Lee hurt his back when he slipped on the wet porch while leaving the 2123 F St. townhouse. He was taken to the hospital as a precaution and will miss about two weeks of work, Kowalczyk said.
Stuart said a prompt call to D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services allowed firefighters to contain the fire to the bedroom before it spread to neighboring units.
“There was more smoke than fire,” Stuart said.
Kowalczyk said the bed and mattress sustained the most damage, an indication that Kunsak might have dropped a lit cigarette while in bed. Stuart, who was on the scene, said there was no clear sign of cigarette use.
Students who witnessed the fire said UPD and D.C. fire officials had the fire under control within minutes of their arrival.
“I saw smoke that looked like it was coming from my house,” said senior Tim Foden, who lives next door to the burned house. He said he was on a Columbia Plaza balcony when he first saw the smoke.
D.C. Deputy Fire Chief Michael Smith said at the scene that the cause of the fire is under investigation. He could not estimate the cost of the damage at the time. Local television channel ABC News 7 reported the fire caused $5,000 worth of damage.
“The entire inside of the house looked completely gutted,” Foden said. “I don’t see how anybody is ever going to be able to repair the house.”
Foden said the University has expressed interest in buying the property in the past, which includes the house he rents with three other GW students.
The four students live in “the swamp,” a nickname for their basement apartment in the three-story townhouse. Foden’s roommate Patrick Florentino said Kunsak lived in her house alone since they moved next door in May.
“Every other week there would be a fire truck or a MPD car outside with officers looking for her because no one had heard from her for long periods of time,” Florentino said.
“It seemed as if everything was coming to an end for her,” Foden said, adding that the neighbor returned from a nursing home Wednesday after being hospitalized.
The neighbors said Kunsak received her nickname because she often fed pigeons and rats around her townhouse.
Stuart said fatal fires are rare in the Foggy Bottom area.
“This is the first fatality from a fire I can remember in my three years working here,” Stuart said.
Stuart said GW got aggressive with campus fire safety after a 1979 fire in Thurston Hall. GW community facilitators routinely confiscate candles and other flammable devices from students even if they are unused. GW also banned halogen lights last year as a fire hazard.
The local D.C. fire station on G Street gives free smoke detectors to any resident who needs one.
“Just yesterday afternoon, a student who I think was a fraternity member came in, and I gave him three smoke detectors,” Stuart said.
Stuart said he and other firefighters put in overtime and returned to the scene later Sunday morning to find neighbors concerned about what happened. He said they answered questions and concerns regarding the fire and spread the word about the smoke detector program.
–Mosheh Oinounou and Russ Rizzo contributed to this report.