Blaze Guts Cafritz Mansion in Northwest Washington

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fire gutted the Chain Bridge Road mansion of Peggy Cooper Cafritz on Wednesday night in Northwest Washington, and officials said firefighters were hindered in their efforts by low water pressure.

Neither Cafritz, a former president of the D.C. Board of Education, nor anyone else was thought to be in the house when the fire began about 8 p.m., officials said. Two dogs were rescued by neighbors. "It's like watching Tara burn down," said neighbor Peter Gillon, describing Cafritz's house as "a really priceless, beautiful piece of architecture."

The blaze, which continued to burn shortly before midnight, badly damaged Cafritz's extensive art collection, Gillon said. "The whole collection is up in flames," he said.

Gillon said residents in the 3000 block of the street have been having problems with water pressure in recent weeks. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority "is very aware of the problems on this street," he said.

Gillon said he heard a small explosion about 8 p.m. Wednesday. When he looked outside, he saw a fire.

District Fire Chief Dennis Rubin and Gillon said that it took firefighters about 30 minutes to find consistent water pressure and that they searched as far as five blocks away for fire hydrants that could supply additional water.

"If there had been enough fire pressure, . . . there's no question that the firefighters could have controlled this fire," Gillon said.

Rubin confirmed the water-pressure problem, saying it took firefighters nearly two hours to have a sustained stream of water to bring the blaze under control. "Throughout the evening, it's been spotty," said Rubin, who was at the scene.

Rubin said investigators will try to determine why firefighters did not have accurate information about the water supply in the area.

"This is an unfortunate situation," Rubin said. "We are not responsible for that. WASA was supposed to have a detailed report" about areas where fire hydrants don't have sufficient water pressure.

-- Clarence Williams

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