Failure to Make Upgrades Cited in Eastern Market Fire

By Allison Klein and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Bureaucratic red tape prevented the Eastern Market from getting new electrical work and a sprinkler system years ago, according to an advisory panel on the landmark's renovation. Those improvements might have prevented this week's devastating fire, authorities said.

D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said yesterday that the blaze that destroyed much of the interior of the 134-year-old market early Monday probably was caused by an electrical problem. He said a sprinkler system would have brought the fire under control before firefighters arrived at the building on Capitol Hill.

"The likelihood is that the fire would have been controlled with one single sprinkler head," Rubin said.

The Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, established by statute in 1998 to coordinate community input, recommended four years ago that city officials upgrade the electrical wiring and three years ago that the city-owned landmark get a sprinkler system, panel members said yesterday.

D.C. officials acknowledged the recommendations but said the city decided to wait and include the wiring and sprinklers as part of an overall restoration of the market -- planned to begin this summer.

"Getting to the renovation plans was such a difficult and hard-fought process, with concerns about how it was impacting vendors and community, that it was all packaged into one global restoration plan," said City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who has lived on Capitol Hill for 14 years.

In the meantime, the city spent about $1.56 million for other capital improvements, most notably an outdoor shed adjacent to the market, officials said.

"The shed became the easier thing to do that didn't tear into issues like North Hall versus South Hall, and farmer vendors versus craft vendors," Tangherlini said. "The Middle East is more straightforward than this."

As a result of the fire, the original $3 million construction cost of the renovations is likely to grow to as much as $30 million, said Lars Etzkorn, director of the Office of Property Management.

The recommendations on wiring and sprinklers were made to the Office of Property Management, which is responsible for capital improvements to Eastern Market. All of the city's public structures built after 1973 are required to have sprinkler systems. Older buildings that undergo major renovations are also required to have sprinklers.

The recommendations were not acted on immediately because of "bureaucratic red tape," said Monte Edwards, who chairs the capital improvements subcommittee of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee.

"We had recommended that the wiring be upgraded," Edwards said.

In a September 2003 report to the city, the committee noted the "need to upgrade the electric service because of code violations and fire hazards." The committee also called for repairs to leaking sewers, leaking skylights and overflowing gutters and downspouts. The committee was echoing the findings of an architectural firm hired by the city, Edwards said.

The next year, the advisory committee was urging the city to include sprinklers as part of any interior renovation.

The 12-member committee includes a member appointed by the mayor and one by the D.C. Council, with the rest chosen by a variety of community groups, according to Donna Scheeder, who chairs the group. The committee advises the city on the market's restoration and market operations, she said.

"We wish they had managed their way on this quicker," Tangherlini said, referring to city officials, community groups and market vendors. But instead of looking "to find who the bad guy was in the Eastern Market fire," he said, all parties need to focus on how to restore the market.

As a result of the fire, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said the market would reopen in 18 months to two years. He said the electrical and sprinkler systems are still part of the renovation plans.

"We want to restore this building 100 percent to its architectural and historic splendor," Fenty said.

He said he is trying to identify city and federal funding and will also use money raised by the neighborhood group Capitol Hill Community Foundation.

Fenty said he is taking several steps to help the 13 vendors who lost their livelihoods in the market fire. The city is looking for a temporary location for them, probably close to the market, while the space is being renovated. "These vendors have served the community so well," Fenty said. "We want to help them make payroll."

Also, the city will suspend the vendors' rent payments and will forgive the quarterly sales tax payment due May 15.

"We don't want you to go anywhere," D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told the vendors at a meeting. "We want you to be the ones to cut the ribbon to go back into the market."

The mayor's announcement came as Fenty and Rubin, who was confirmed as chief yesterday by the D.C. Council, released additional details about the fires at the market and the Georgetown library.

"We are so touched and upset and hopeful after yesterday's events," Fenty said. "I want to recognize the fire department for putting their lives on the line twice yesterday."

Rubin said electrical engineers and other investigators, including agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are carefully sifting through the Eastern Market to identify what sparked the blaze. Rubin added that the walls of the market are "reasonably structurally sound."

Despite the problems, Fenty encouraged people to visit the Eastern Market this weekend for the regularly scheduled flea market. The outdoor vendors will be selling food and other wares Saturday, and Sunday is the annual Market Day celebration.

The cause of the library fire, which broke out about noon Monday, has not been determined, but Rubin said it probably was not arson. The building is in bad shape, with a large crack in the facade on the R Street side, and firefighters were not able to get into parts of it to fully investigate, officials said.

The ceiling in the Peabody Room, which held the library's most valuable collection, is intact, and 80 percent of the collection is safe, fire officials said. There is significant damage to the north and south walls, and the roof needs to be replaced.

On the east side of the library, which was not as badly damaged, people were still retrieving books and documents yesterday.

Fenty said he is committed to restoring the branch and preserving the "honor and history of the community."

Neither the market nor the library was equipped with sprinklers, which were not required in either case because of the building's age. The market was built in 1873, the library in 1935.

Even if the law does not require it, Vincent Brannigan, a University of Maryland professor of fire-protection engineering, said both buildings should have had sprinkler systems.

He said libraries can have low-pressure sprinklers that cause less damage to papers and other important materials.

Staff writers Elissa Silverman and Susan Levine and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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