Neighbors mourn victim of 23rd Street house fire

Fire contained in front door area

The man who died in a single-alarm house fire in Richmond Wednesday night was described by neighbors as a kind person who was physically disabled.

The fire broke out about 5:30 p.m. in a residential building on the 400 block of S. 23rd St., according to police and fire officials. Emergency responders found the charred body of a man in his 40s or 50s just inside the front door of his second-story apartment, where he lived alone. The man, who neighbors knew only as Christopher, apparently died while trying to flee the fire, police said.

The man is not being identified until his family is notified.

Although authorities first indicated the fire might have been electrical, investigators now say the fire involved “unusual” circumstances, Richmond police Sgt. Nicole Abetkov said. But foul play is not suspected.

“We won’t know cause of death until the autopsy is done, but nothing appears suspicious,” Abetkov said.

Cassandra Martin, who lives in a ground floor unit of the building, said she smelled smoke but did not realize the severity of what was happening. Martin said Christopher had been living in the building before she moved in two years ago. Martin and her sister said Christopher was a pleasant man, but a loner. They said his family lives out of state.

Christopher apparently worked for the California Department of Public Health on Marina Bay Parkway, Martin said. Calls to the department were not immediately returned.

“He couldn’t hear in one ear, and he walked with a limp,” Martin said. “His supervisor came and said they were trying to get him on disability. He was having trouble getting to work.”

A month or so before his death, Martin added, Christopher accidentally lit his hair on fire at his apartment, apparently with a lighter. He wasn’t seriously injured in that incident, Martin said.

While the fire doesn’t appear suspicious, a police investigation may still be in order. Last night, according to a contractor, someone apparently broke into the unit, ripping off a board that had been fastened to the front door with multiple screws.