By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008
The blaze at the National Zoo began when a corroded aquarium lamp sparked in the Invertebrate House and started an electrical fire. The smoke was intense, but the flames were quickly discovered, staff was evacuated, and none of the insects, lobsters or other creatures in the building perished.
When zoo officials looked into the circumstances, however, they found, to their dismay, that the house's recently tested smoke alarms failed to activate. Further investigation showed that other fire protection systems across the zoo complex were also inadequate -- and in most cases, nonexistent.
In the aftermath of that fire two years ago -- and another small blaze in November -- zoo employees are immersed in a multi-year program to upgrade the zoo's fire detection and suppression, and smoke evacuation.
The need is dire, zoo officials said. Only 11 of 87 buildings have fully equipped sprinkler systems, and many cannot be operated because of inadequate water main pressure.
Fifteen buildings -- including the Great Ape House, the Bird House, the Reptile Discovery Center and the Small Mammal House -- have no sprinkler systems. And only 21 buildings have fire detection and alarm systems.
"This issue is what wakes me up at 3 o'clock in the morning," zoo Director John Berry said in a recent interview. "Wide awake."
Zoo officials said they want to avoid the kind of tragedy that struck the Philadelphia Zoo on Dec. 24, 1995, when 23 animals, including gorillas, orangutans, lemurs and gibbons, died in a disastrous fire inside a zoo enclosure that had no sprinklers.
"We're holding our breath," Berry said. "Until we get this done, we are in the same vulnerable place."
Berry said the April 2006 fire broke out in the morning after the staff had arrived. He said the smoke alarm didn't activate because the smoke didn't reach it.
"If this had happened three hours earlier, before any employees had shown up," he said, "we would have lost the entire collection and the whole house."
"It was, to me, a huge wake-up call," he said, adding that he realized "this is the most urgent and significant issue that the National Zoo faces."
This summer, the zoo plans to begin the next phase of its water main replacement program. Two years ago, the old main entering the zoo from Connecticut Avenue was replaced as part of the construction of the zoo's new Asia Trail exhibit.
The upcoming phase, expected to start in July or August and run through the fall, will involve the $1.5 million upgrade to a quarter-mile of old water main that runs from Adams Mill Road to the veterinary hospital at the southern end of the zoo.
The work must be done at night to avoid disrupting daily activities around the hospital, officials said.
Another water main upgrade, from the hospital to the Great Ape House, could start later this year, pending government funding.
In addition, the zoo is about to test a state-of-the-art smoke detection system in the Great Ape House and Kids' Farm Barn that can "see" smoke and fire, said the zoo's resident engineer, Marc M. Muller.
Smoke is a serious problem, Berry said, because, unlike people, most animals can't be evacuated from a burning structure. It was smoke inhalation that killed the animals at the Philadelphia Zoo, officials said at the time. "The animals are stuck," Berry said. "How do we get the smoke out of the buildings and keep the animals alive?"
Berry said a zoo team has been going around the country to see how it might be done. "Nobody has done that well," he said.
In the meantime, the zoo has taken further stopgap measures.
Smoking was banned last year because of mulch fires sparked by discarded cigarette butts. This month, the zoo is replacing its fire hydrants with newer models. And workers are constructing a hay barn away from other buildings.
"While we're waiting for the sprinklers and this water main to get done," Berry said, "we've got to be extra vigilant, and on our extra guard."
The zoo was lucky again in November, Berry said. An overhead heater ignited some hay in a stall at the Kids' Farm Barn. Zookeepers led cows and goats to safety, and a panicked donkey was taken out while a keeper held a hand over the animal's eyes.
The fire was extinguished by the zoo's police chief, who doused the flames with a garden hose. No people or animals were hurt.
There were sprinklers in the barn, but the zoo found that they did not activate because the heat did not reach the sensors, Berry said. "We're learning in each of these things," he said. "We've been very fortunate."