Parents Speak on Wrongful Death Verdict After DC Rowhouse Fire Killed Their Daughter

"We never would have suspected that it was a death trap"

Holding landlords accountable would honor the memory of a young women killed in her dangerous D.C. apartment, her parents say.

Nina Brekelmans died nearly three years ago after flames erupted in the historic rowhouse where she rented an apartment near Dupont Circle. The apartment was illegal and never was inspected. When the fire broke out, Brekelmans, 25, and her housemate Michael McLoughlin, 24, were trapped on the third floor. There were no smoke detectors, and the windows were painted shut, their families said in a wrongful death lawsuit.

On Wednesday, the families won that suit, as News4 was first to report. A jury ruled building owner Len Salas and his father, Max Salas, who was found to have served as a landlord, must pay the families a combined $15.2 million.

In their first interview since the fire, Brekelmans' parents told News4 Thursday morning that they want to see juries and the D.C. government work for tenants. 

"There needs to be some accountability and responsibility for creating a safe environment for tenants," Nico Brekelmans, the victim's father, said. "We don't want this to happen ever again. We don't want anybody else to go through what we went through."

Gail Brekelmans, the victim's mother, wept as she spoke about her family's loss.

"Nina was our precious, precious daughter. She had a bright future ahead of her," she said. "And to think that she could have just walked out if the smoke alarms had been interconnected -- we're just going to have to live with that for the rest of our lives."

The Brekelmans said the verdict brought them a measure of comfort.

"It was a little bit of a relief. If it would have gone the other way, it would have been a disaster," he said. "We believe in the system, and justice was served yesterday."

Lawyers for the Salases did not respond to inquiries. 

When the fire at 1610 Riggs Place broke out June 3, 2015, Brekelmans, a Dartmouth College graduate, had just earned a master's degree from Georgetown University. McLoughlin graduated from University of Maryland and was launching his career with an insurance company.

Investigators determined the fire started accidentally. In the wreckage of the Salases’ living room on the first floor, where the blaze was determined to have started, officials found an electrical plug with a damaged prong, an ungrounded two-prong extension cord and an oil-filled space heater.

A month after the fire, the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) fined the Salases $6,000 because they failed to obtain a license to rent rooms or apartments, which would have included proof of an inspection.

Dangerous illegal apartments often go unnoticed until a tragedy occurs, News4 reported after the fire.

In D.C., the detection of illegal apartments depends on renters knowing their rights and neighbors reporting anything suspicious, DCRA Director Melinda Bolling said. 

“We wouldn’t know,” she said. “We look to our [Advisory Neighborhood Commissions], citizens and the tenants themselves to be proactive to let us know about properties. We get information from those parties and we do compliance checks.”

Brekelmans and McLoughlin each paid about $1,500 a month for furnished rooms with separate kitchenettes, a man who lived in a basement apartment of the house said.

Nothing about the beautiful rowhouse suggested it would be dangerous, Gail Brekelmans said.

"We never would have suspected that it was a death trap," she said.

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