Firefighters at Cafritz Home Hindered by Hydrants' Low Water Pressure, They Say

A large fire in northwest D.C. destroyed the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a local arts patron, on the night of July 29.
By Theola Labbé-DeBose and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 31, 2009

District firefighters battling the blaze that gutted an upper Northwest mansion Wednesday night had grave difficulties finding enough water to douse the flames, despite promises from city officials two years ago that the water problems that had plagued them at previous fires would be fixed.

Fire officials said the low pressure they found forced them to tap hydrants blocks away and even bring in reinforcements from Montgomery County. D.C. Water and Sewer Authority officials said the hydrants performed as they should have.

D.C. Council members are calling for answers, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said his office will oversee a joint investigation with the fire department and WASA. "We have already started to gather stories from first responders, stories from neighbors and stories from families," the mayor said. "We will issue a public report in explicit detail. I know there are probably no shortage of questions." He said he expects a report early next week.

WASA officials are testing the two water mains that were used to fight the fire in the 3000 block of Chain Bridge Road NW. The mansion belongs to former D.C. Board of Education president Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and the fire ruined much of her prized art collection.

So far, officials have not detected any water flow problems, said Charlie Kiely, WASA's assistant general manager for water services.

D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said the department is trying to figure out what happened. "We don't know how the fire hydrants were used," he said. "We have begun a thorough investigation to help make the best determination of what happened so that the water supply issues get resolved as quickly as possible." He said the cause of the fire and the difficulty of extinguishing it are under investigation.

But Kiely said that firefighters found low pressure because they tapped too many hydrants on the same eight-inch water main. When that happens, firefighters should move to another hydrant on an adjacent main, he said.

"They wouldn't have enough water in that first main to handle a multiple-alarm fire. We know that. They know that," Kiely said.

The fire department generally has a water supply officer on the scene to manage the flow of water, which comes from an intricate maze of underground mains. Rubin said the officer was there for the duration of the blaze, but he declined to elaborate.

The water flow debate is reminiscent of problems that occurred in 2007, when broken fire hydrants hindered the response to a major blaze at the Georgetown library. That same year, the two agencies traded accusations over problems during a fire that destroyed parts of an Adams Morgan condominium building.

Although Rubin blamed WASA for the problems in the Adams Morgan fire, a fire department report later said the water supply there had been adequate.

Still, the water agency revamped its process for inspecting and fixing hydrants after the 2007 library blaze.

In addition, largely as a result of the 2007 problems, the two agencies now meet once a month to discuss water issues, and their data sharing is "world class," officials said. They jointly participate in the hydrant inspection program. The fire department collects the data, and WASA maintains it, Kiely said, and that way both departments know the status of all hydrants.

According to WASA, after Wednesday evening's fire started, firefighters tapped a main from Chain Bridge Road that had a flow of about 500 to 750 gallons a minute. When the first two pumps were attached to the first two hydrants, the flow was fine, he said. But when they attached to a third hydrant on the same main, the flow dropped, Kiely said.

That was when firefighters had to find another main to tap. Kiely said it was unclear how long it took firefighters to find the hydrant on nearby Rockwood Street, about 1,000 feet away, which accessed a separate eight-inch main that flowed at about 1,000 gallons a minute, he said.

Several hours before the fire, Kiely said, WASA workers were in the neighborhood checking water flow because a neighbor near Cafritz's home complained of low pressure. Kiely said his workers went up and down Chain Bridge Road and did not find any problem.

"If there had been a problem, firefighters would not have gotten good flow when they initially tapped the first hydrant," Kiely said But neighbors living along the streets near Cafritz's 18-room home said that they have complained to WASA of water pressure problems with no relief.

In the six years that Marsha Muawwad, 60, and her husband have lived in the 3000 block of University Terrace, near the Cafritz home, there has not been enough pressure to flush the three toilets on their home's third floor, she said. Also, it can take several minutes to fill a pitcher or a large watering can, Muawwad said.

"This woman lost this house and her mementos, and that is unconscionable," she said. "All because of something the District already knew about. How much confidence does that give you?

NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell, a neighbor who ran to the scene of Wednesday's fire, said she has complained about the water pressure and the quality of the water, which has been dirty, for some time.

"All the neighbors are very, very distressed," Mitchell said of the blaze.

Staff writers David Montgomery, Debbi Wilgoren and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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