Fire Alarms in Navy Yard Seniors Home Didn't Work, Residents and Rescuers Say

"As we saw the fire alarms, we were pulling them — nothing," said a neighbor who ran into the building to help

What to Know

  • Fire officials are investigating whether fire alarms were working in the seniors apartment building that burned Wednesday.
  • Ten seniors were taken to hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries after the fire at the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments.
  • "As we saw the fire alarms, we were pulling them — nothing," said a neighbor who ran into the building to rescue people.

A day after a huge fire forced dozens of seniors out of their homes near the Washington Navy Yard, fire officials are investigating whether fire alarms in the building worked properly.

Multiple residents of the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments said they heard no alarms after a powerful fire broke out about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, injuring 10 people and sending a huge plume of black smoke into the air. Instead, residents were alerted by U.S. Marines and neighbors who banged on their doors. 

D.C. fire chief Gregory Dean told News4 that he has heard multiple reports that wall-mounted fire alarms did not work when pulled.

"No one heard any horns. That's the early notification. That's really what was missing on this building," he said. 

Neighborhood advocate Bruce DarConte ran into the building in the 900 block of 5th Street SE to help his neighbors get out. He said he and others pulled wall-mounted fire alarms in the hallways, but nothing happened.

"As we saw the fire alarms, we were pulling them — nothing. So we just kept going. It didn't pay for us to stand there," he said.

The fire chief said Thursday that smoke detectors inside apartments are believed to have worked. On lower floors of the four-story building, smoke alarms and the sprinkler system did not activate because they were not exposed to smoke or flames, Dean said. It wasn't clear if alarms or sprinklers activated on upper floors.  

The fire is believed to have started in the attic, fire officials said.

The building was inspected by the fire department last year, and the alarm system was checked three times in the past year, most recently in April, Dean said.

Resident Cherie Gibson said she didn't hear or see any emergency alerts.

"The alarm did not go off. Our sprinklers did not go off," she said. 

A man who helped his elderly father get out of the building also said he got no alert. 

"No sprinklers went off. No nothing went off," Louis Watts said. 

Residents of all 161 units in the building were forced out of their homes, with no timeline in sight for when they will be able to retrieve their belongings or move back in.

Nearly 90 residents went to a shelter Wednesday night. Many were picked up by family members. As of Thursday morning, 44 people still were in the shelter. They were set to go to hotels later in the day. 

The community organization Near Southeast Community Partners is raising funds to help victims of the fire. The Capitol Hill Community Foundation also is fundraising. Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen sent locals information about that fund. 

Ten seniors were taken to hospitals for non-life-threatening injuries after the heavy fire broke out. Residents were rushed to safety, some in wheelchairs. 

Everyone who was inside the building is believed to have gotten out, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a news conference late Wednesday. Bowser said building management called the tenants and each person was accounted for.

Flames and a huge plume of black smoke could be seen from afar, and heavy smoke blanketed the neighborhood. Three hours after flames were spotted, the fire still was raging. Dramatic video shows the roof of the building collapse.

The fire burned for more than eight hours Wednesday. On Thursday, firefighters were still putting out hot spots. 

About 100 U.S. Marines ran toward the building and carried seniors out of their apartments after spotting the smoke, the fire chief said. Marines and others could be seen rushing toward the building pushing stretchers and wheelchairs. 

"We all went in there to carry people out," Capt. Trey Gregory said live on News4. The Marines hauled out some residents by carrying them over their shoulders, he said. 

The Washington Navy Yard is located two blocks to the south. 

D.C. firefighters rescued several people using ladders. 

One woman helped her grandmother, who uses a wheelchair, get out of the building. They passed through hallways engulfed in smoke.

"I couldn't breathe, she couldn't breathe and we couldn't see anything," the woman said, nearly in tears.

D.C. firefighters arrived shortly before 3:30 p.m. More than 100 firefighters were on the scene as of 4 p.m. Firefighters from Prince George's County, Maryland, also responded. 

By about 8 p.m., fire officials said they had confined the fire to the building. Firefighters were still fighting the flames at 11:30 p.m. They advised neighbors to close their windows and stay inside to avoid the smoke.

Nearby Van Ness Elementary School was set to be closed Thursday because of the poor air quality. 

The D.C. Department of Energy and Environment determined later Thursday that the air quality was good. 

Crews will work to determine the cause of the fire. 

The affordable apartment building was completed in 2007 and has 162 units, the D.C. Housing Authority's website says. The apartments were built in the former location of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing complex, which the city demolished in 2007. That complex included more than 700 households. 

The fire chief said the damage Wednesday could have been worse. 

"We lost no lives. We lost a piece of property," he said. 

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