Federal investigators criticized D.C.'s fire chief for denying access to a senior citizen apartment complex after a devastating fire ripped through the building near Navy Yard in Southeast in September.
According to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives report, members of the Arson Task Force — comprised of investigators from D.C. police, D.C. fire and the ATF — were told the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments wasn’t safe to enter despite investigators’ concerns people could still be inside.
ATF search teams were denied access the day after the fire and again when they took search dogs to the scene two days later, according to the report.
But the engineer for the property owner and his crew were going in and out and eventually found a man still trapped in his apartment five days after the fire, the report says.
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The lack of access also may have prevented inspectors to determine why the alarms didn’t go off, according to the report. On the day of the fire they were able to determine the alarms didn’t work despite several people pulling them.
The day after the fire, the fire alarm panel was still illuminated and operating and displaying the word "disabled," but when investigators got access to it days later, the power was off and any data that may have helped determine why the alarms didn’t work was gone, the report says.
Fire Chief Gregory Dean made those decisions to deny access with safety in mind, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue said.
“He has to balance access for investigators with the fact that it's a building that still is at risk even for investigators for collapse,” he said.
While the official cause of the fire is listed as undetermined, investigators ruled out electrical or other mechanical causes of the fire, saying it was likely the result of human activity in the attic.
“Some people that might have been there, may have smoked there, may have smoked on the roof, that the cause came from there," Donahue said.
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It's possible maintenance workers or squatters known to do drugs in the attic caused the fire. There was clear evidence someone tried to put the fire out with a garden house from the roof just after it started.
A 74-year-old man spent five days trapped inside his apartment in the collapsed seniors home after the fire. He was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
The delayed search for survivors is something District officials are still looking at, Donahue said.
“That really is a focus of one of the after-action follows that we have to do, and we have to get much better on future fires,” he said.
The powerful fire broke out about 3:30 p.m. Sept. 19, injuring 10 people and sending a huge plume of black smoke into the air. Residents were alerted by U.S. Marines and neighbors who banged on their doors.
Residents of all 161 units in the building were forced out of their homes.
The report estimates the damage at more than $50 million.