By Andrea Swalec
A young woman killed in a house fire near Dupont Circle last year was a dedicated runner who studied Arabic at Georgetown University. In her honor, 200 people ran a race starting on the school's campus Saturday morning to help fund an Arab Studies scholarship in her name.
Nina Brekelmans, 25, died June 3, 2015, after the house on the 1600 block of Riggs Place NW in which she rented a room caught fire overnight. According to a $10 million lawsuit filed by her family, Brekelmans was trapped in her third-floor room because her windows were stuck closed and her room had no fire escape.
The Dartmouth College graduate had recently earned a master's degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown and was headed to the Middle East as a Fulbright scholar to research female runners in Jordan, combining two of her passions, family members and friends said.
"Nina was one of the kindest, most genuine people that you'll ever meet," said Mary Grace Pellegrini, who grew up with Brekelmans in Louisville and organized the 5K.
Pellegrini, 26, asked runners to keep her Georgetown Running Club teammate in mind as they ran the course that passed through some of her favorite places, including along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath.
"Think of her when you're on the towpath this morning," Pellegrini said before the runners took off.
Brekelmans' parents, Nico and Gail Brekelmans, were among the runners who woke early on a cold Saturday morning. They, like dozens of others, wore neon orange T-shirts printed with "Nina Brekelmans Memorial Scholarship 5K" printed in English and Arabic.
"It's just wonderful everyone is here for Nina," Brekelmans' father said after he finished the race -- his first -- to huge cheers. "It's really helping us."
Top honors went to Phil Royer, who graduated from Dartmouth with Brekelmans. He finished the winding course in 16:56.
The Brekelmans, who flew in from Shanghai, announced that after the race, the scholarship in their daughter's name to the university's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies had been fully funded.
"As long as Georgetown is around, there will be a named scholarship," Nico Brekelmans said.
Funds raised from the race contributed about $10,000 to the fund, Pellegrini said.
And as runners hit the pavement in D.C., another group ran in Brekelmans' honor more than 5,000 miles away. A group of girls in Amman, Jordan, ran Saturday with the Nina Brekelmans Running Camp for Girls. The group was created to carry out Brekelmans' vision outlined in her Fulbright proposal to promote girls' health and boost their self-esteem.
The house fire that killed Brekelmans also killed Michael McLoughlin, 24, who had rented a room on the same floor. He was a Maryland native who worked for an insurance company in Bethesda and had an infectious laugh, friends and family members told The Washington Post.
Lawyers for the building's owner, Len Salas, say in court documents that the electrical fire could not have been prevented.
Brekelmans would have been 26 this month.
"Nina was a wonderful person," her father said.
"She knew exactly what she wanted to do," he added before saying he could not go on.