DC Knew of Dangerous Conditions at Site of Fatal Row House Fire

What to Know

  • The Aug. 18 fire sent smoke pouring out of the row house on Kennedy Street NW. A man died of his injuries
  • Nine-year-old Yafet Solomon was rushed to a hospital with injuries and later died

Before the house fire that killed a 9-year-old boy and a man earlier this month, at least three D.C. agencies knew of dangerous conditions inside the row house that was illegally divided into tiny apartments.

D.C. police, the D.C. fire department and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) knew of the hazardous conditions five months before the fire but only police took any action. Both DC Fire and DCRA inspectors failed to take action to remove families living in the house.

On the morning of Aug. 18, those conditions proved fatal. 

“That is inexcusable, and so we certainly have addressed much of that issue through reforms that have already taken place prior to this fire,” City Administrator Rashad Young said.

Iron security bars on the windows prevented residents from escaping faster. Authorities have yet to determine an official cause of the fire but said the row house's narrow halls, broken smoke detectors and barred exits were a deadly combination. Even the building's front door was blocked by metal bars, which were ripped off as tenants screamed for help.

Investigators found that the house — where more than a dozen Ethiopian immigrants lived — had multiple code violations, including bars on doors, not enough exits, no working smoke detectors, no sprinkler system and inadequate lighting.

In March, D.C. police were first to become aware of the conditions at 708 Kennedy St. NW, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue said. A police officer was called to the house for a noise complaint March 21 and saw the unsafe conditions inside.

According to a police report dated March 22, the house had no lit exit signs and no working smoke detectors, and the one fire extinguisher was not tagged. There were also too many makeshift doors with locks that would make it hard to exit in an emergency, the report said.

The report said that the building used to be a pharmacy, but the basement had been changed into a rooming house, and office space looked like it was being used as a seamstress shop.

The officer reported the conditions inside the house to D.C. Fire & EMS and DCRA March 22, Donahue said.

"Strongly recommend both DCRA and DCFD Code Inspectors respond to the listed location," the police report said.

The officer sent five emails over two months to D.C. Fire & EMS and DCRA before an inspector from DCRA went to the house. The inspector visited three times but could not get inside because nobody was home.

“In this instance, this investigator went three times to this property and then closed this case,” Young said. 

Government officials said DCRA could have gotten a court order to force entry into the house but did not.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered D.C. police, the D.C. fire department and DCRA to conduct internal reviews to identify gaps. Four employees of the fire department and DCRA have been been placed on administrative leave.

A third-party review of what happened will be conducted as well.

“Part of our evaluation is going to be what our policy and process guidance is and should we and could we have done more?” Young said.

The fire sent smoke pouring out of the row house about 9:40 a.m. Aug. 18. A man died of his injuries. D.C. police have not identified him, pending notification of his family.

Nine-year-old Yafet Solomon was rushed to a hospital with injuries and later died.

In the days after the fire, DCRA said the house was not licensed for any type of residential use. Two certificates of occupancy permits had been issued for the address, one in 1995 for a pharmacy there, and another in 1993 for office space, according to the March 22 police report.

Bowser asked federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation.

"The District will not tolerate landlords who prey on vulnerable populations, operating unlicensed rental properties and showing no concern for people's safety," Bowser said in a statement last week.

Five days after the fire, Bowser indicated city officials didn't know about the illegal conditions prior to the fire.

"I want to tell people living in an unsafe situation that we will do our best to help you, but we have to know about it," she said.

Bowser did not know at that point that the police officer had reported the conditions.

News4 reached out to the owner of the row house for comment, but he has not returned calls.

City officials said they have hardly spoken with him, either. They identified two other properties that he owns and are inspecting them to see if the same conditions exist.

Yafet Solomon, the child who was killed in the fire, was "extremely funny," loved to read and dreamed of being a lawyer, according to a GoFundMe page his teachers at Barnard Elementary School started.

His funeral will be held Wednesday.

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