Fire that destroyed D.C. mansion and art ruled accidental

Investigators say the July fire that destroyed the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz might have been caused by oily rags left on a porch.
Investigators say the July fire that destroyed the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz might have been caused by oily rags left on a porch. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The fire that destroyed the house of former school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz on Chain Bridge Road in July has been ruled accidental, and the loss of her home and prized art collection is estimated at $15 million, according to the final report released Monday.

Based on interviews with staff members who were working at Cafritz's home that day, investigators think that paper towels soaked in linseed oil were left in a plastic trash bag on the northeast corner of the porch and that they sparked the fire. The east porch suffered the most damage and was the likely "area of origin" for the fire, the report says. But the fire was ruled "undetermined, accidental," said D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin, because investigators could not prove that the oil-soaked paper towels caused the blaze.

Investigators interviewed Cafritz, who is identified only as "homeowner" in the redacted report, and her staff. According to the housekeeper, the outdoor patio furniture was treated with linseed oil at 2 p.m. and a second time at 6 p.m. In both instances, the housekeeper said, the paper towels were placed in trash bags in the kitchen; they were not left on the east porch, the report says. But the butler said that it was common practice for trash bags to be placed on the east porch.

Early witnesses saw flames coming from the east porch, the report says.

"There was no evidence to suggest that the fire resulted from electrical, mechanical or natural heat sources," the report said. "The hypothesis evaluated suggests that the fire was accidental in nature and due to linseed oil-soaked paper towels left in a plastic trash bag in the North/East east corner of the East porch," investigators concluded.

The 18-page report was completed about a week after the fire and represented a collaborative effort among D.C. fire department investigators, including an accelerant-sniffing dog, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and D.C. police.

During the July 29 blaze, firefighters said they didn't have enough water pressure for their fire hoses. The difficulties that day underscored larger problems with low-flow fire hydrants and a lack of information available to firefighters about which hydrants are served by smaller water mains.

In 2007, serious fires in Georgetown and Adams Morgan prompted the water utility and the fire department to work more closely on water supply issues and to sign a memorandum of understanding about water supply and hydrant maintenance. According to that agreement, fire officials inspect hydrants twice a year and tag the broken ones as a signal to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority to repair them. Once repaired, WASA does a flow test and attaches a colored band that corresponds to the flow strength of available water.

But about three-fourths of the city's 9,000 hydrants need to be tested and replaced. And because of that unfinished work, on the night of the Chain Bridge Road fire, firefighters had to wait 40 minutes for a WASA representative to arrive and direct them to larger water mains.

Rubin, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), William M. Walker, chairman of the water authority board, and new WASA general manager George S. Hawkins appeared at the morning news conference to talk about improvements in water supply since the Chain Bridge Road fire.

Fenty said the fire has prompted nine recommendations that the fire and water agencies are studying. They include reviewing and updating the memorandum every two years and more training on the water system for all battalion fire chiefs. Another recommendation is that, in a multiple-alarm fire, the incident commander call WASA's command center to get immediate information about high-flow hydrants, Fenty said.

Rubin said the department has put three extra water trucks in service throughout the city: one in Southeast Washington, one in Upper Northwest and one for the area near Rhode Island Avenue NE, so that parts of the city with pressure problems are reinforced.

Another recommendation was for WASA to reach out to a third party to run flow tests on every hydrant, so that firefighters would know a hydrant's water capacity. WASA does flow tests only on the hydrants that it replaces, about 25 percent of the city's 9,000 public hydrants. Walker said the agency was taking a serious look at how to complete more testing.

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