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D.C. Council grills response teams on evacuation of senior home

October 26, 2018

The D.C. Council on Thursday grilled the city’s emergency response departments over the evacuation of a Southeast senior home during a three-alarm fire last month. One the home’s resident was left behind.

Council member Charles Allen chaired the oversight hearing, saying “we still have more questions than answers” about the Sept. 19 fire and evacuation of the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing facility.

Resident Raymond Holton, 74, was found in his apartment in the facility five days after the fire, which engulfed the top two floors and collapsed the roof. The blaze began in a mechanical room, and the building’s safety measures failed to stop it.

“If you’re talking about operating an environment that is carrying patients out, a group fighting fire, and you have things falling down, mistakes will be made,” D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Dean testified.

The chief said the team of 150 firefighters that battled the blaze for 12 hours decided not to search for Arthur Capper a second time because someone assured them that all of its residents had been evacuated. When pressed, Chief Dean admitted he did not know who gave the all-clear.

“I’m a little frustrated with that,” said Mr. Allen, a Democrat who represents Ward 6, which includes the senior home. “We tried to give notice of this hearing well in advance and you don’t know that.”

Edgewood Management, which manages the Arthur Capper building, publicly confirmed later Sept. 19 that all tenants were safe.

Edgewood declined an invitation to testify Thursday, according to Mr. Allen.

Dozens of residents testified about the terror of first learning their home was on fire from family members and city officials calling to tell them.

Council member Robert White, at-large Democrat, thanked the facility’s neighbors and the nearby Marines who rushed into the burning building to evacuate the elderly residents. He said they were “lucky” to have that help because broken fire alarms failed to alert Arthur Capper’s 160 residents of the fire.

Chief Dean confirmed that the building passed its fire inspection in 2017 but had not yet been inspected this year. He said a full incident report will be released, but he did not provide a date.

Residents testified that Edgewood Management had not performed building repairs and employed a security staff who were absent so often that tenants had started manning the front desk.

Helen Douglas, 76, said broken alarms and sprinklers “fits the MO that we already know in our building.”

Edgewood Management could not be reached for comment.

Dabney Hudson, president of the D.C. firefighters union IAFF Local 36, said one of the ladder trucks broke that day. He testified that the ladder got stuck, stranding firefighters on the roof just before it collapsed until two of their colleagues “manually overrode” a safety warning to move the ladder.

Mr. Hudson told The Washington Times that the truck is known for mechanical failures and said he was “frustrated” the city has been slow to replace its aging fleet.

Council member Vincent Gray, Ward 7 Democrat, said the elderly residents displaced by the fire “were obviously indelibly changed” by the tragedy and noted that many had lost not only their homes but also keepsakes like photo albums.

“It was really something new, something hard, something strange,” said resident Cherie Gibson, 67.

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