On October 25th, the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety together with the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization held a joint oversight roundtable to discuss the District’s response to the Sept. 19 fire at the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments (900 Fifth St. SE). The discussion was co-convened by Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Councilmember Anita Bonds (D-At Large), chairs of the respective Committees.
The roundtable lasted for nearly six hours and gave dozens of public witnesses and government agency representatives the opportunity to present their experiences and expectations to the committees. Representatives testified on behalf of DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services (DCFEMS), the District Department of Human Services (DHS), Office on Aging, and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA). However, Allen said that both building ownership and management companies, Bethesda-based Urban Atlantic and Edgewood Management, declined to appear.
On the afternoon of Sept. 19, about 160 senior citizens living in the Arthur Capper Senior Residences on Fifth St. SE were driven from their homes. Witnesses reported that alarms and sprinklers failed to activate. Neighbors, including US Marines, immediately went inside to help rescue residents and upon their arrival, DCFEMs and spent 12 hours rescuing tenants and fighting the fire.
Luckily — and somewhat miraculously — all residents were declared present and accounted for seven hours after the fire was initially reported.
Yet, five days later, an elderly man was found still living in his apartment amidst the wreckage.
That day, Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) vowed in a Tweet that he would be “demanding answers” to discover where the initially successful response had fallen short.
Senior Citizens are Still Hurting
That promise manifested itself as yesterday’s hearing. Public witnesses who testified included displaced tenants of the Capper residence. Many of the men and women who sat before the committees expressed frustration with the building’s management and lamented over the loss of cherished personal belongings.
However, the mood was not entirely somber. Capper residents were eager to express their gratitude for the quick response of the community and the assistance provided to them by neighbors, the U.S. Marines, DCFEMS, and city council at the site of the incident and in the weeks that have passed since.
Displaced Capper resident Helen Douglas described the senior citizens’ ongoing struggle to regain stability in terms of housing, medical routines, and general comfort. She said that the fire and its aftermath “threw us all off balance, and that’s an understatement.”
Role of the Fire Department
Gregory M. Dean, the District’s current Chief of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, appeared before the council to answer a series of questions presented by Councilmember Allen. Allen was primarily concerned with the lapse of communication that occurred on the night of the disaster when the fire department mistakenly reported all of the building’s inhabitants as present based on what was found to be an inaccurate tenant roster supplied by the building’s ownership.
Allen pushed Chief Dean to identify the reason why the department neglected to do a secondary check for individuals still inside the building and whether a change would be made in the future concerning whether private companies could be relied upon to provide tenant rosters.
President of International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 36 Dabney Hudson said that multiple-alarm fires are not rare in the city. “However, it is rare that a fire of this magnitude cripple our agency’s ability to simultaneously respond to daily emergencies that occur throughout the city. This fire did just that.’
Hudson said that DCFEMS responded to 800 calls for service the day of the fire. With resources committed to Arthur Capper and other calls throughout the District, he said DC FEMA had to rely on other jurisdictions such as Prince George County to send in help and called for improvements to DCFEMS resources.
Changes Moving Forward
The roundtable reached no concrete conclusions or plans for future action, saying that the issue of ensuring the safety of the public and some of its most vulnerable members is not one that will be easily solved. The two chairs assured the assembled that a lesson had been learned and that the District would do its best to avoid similar situations moving forward.
While Allen did not seem satisfied with responses about the organization of the response and the decisions that led to a tenant being stranded in the building, he was pleased that the roundtable allowed seniors the chance to provide feedback about the city’s response to this tragedy.
“We can both be very grateful, celebrate and appreciate the hard work of so many people that are helping in the recovery and we can demand answers,” he said. “We can do both these things, which is the goal of this hearing.”
Councilmember Bonds rounded out the day’s discussion by extending a thank you to responsive and supportive community, saying that “we came together as a community, and that’s the important point we can leave this hearing with.”
You can watch the roundtable in its entirety by visiting the DC Council website, or by clicking here.
Abigail Svetlik is a junior at School Without Walls High School in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of DC and an intern with the Hill Rag. She has been a Capital Hill resident her whole life and is passionate about photography and the environment. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.