A fire in the kitchen of the Hay-Adams Hotel sent smoke billowing throught the famed hotel yesterday morning and created panic among some workers who were trapped in a basement corridor for a few minutes.
There were no serious injuries, although about 15 persons - all hotel employes - were taken to George Washington University Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.
Smoke from the fire could be seen throughout the area around the elegant hotel, at 16th and H House, and hundreds of spectators gathered as 12 companies of firefighters put out the blaze.
Some kitchen workers, engulfed in smoke, rushed through a basement corridor shortly after the fire broke out only to have a large, electrically operated sliding steel door that leads to the outside close in their faces. The electricity had gone off, automatically shutting the door as well as dousing the lights.
"People were screaming and yelling and pushing, everybody was crushing everybody in there," said delivery man Frank Jones, who was caught in the corridor.
"It was horrible, it was hot, hot smoke, jet black," said another woman who asked not to be identified.
The dozen or so trapped people said they were there for nearly 10 minutes, coughing and shouting. Some lay on the floor to escape the smoke and all crowded in the corridor, which was narrowed by packing boxes stacked along one wall. Some said they were unaware that just above their heads was an unmarked chain sticking out of the wall that they cound have used to open the door manually.
Firemen finally came and pried open the door.
Management of the luxurious and historic hotel said damage did not appear to be major, and guests were being shifted to other hotels.
Fire officials said they are investigating to determine whether there are fire and construction code violations at the hotel. Among the factors being checked, they said, are the bosed and other items stacked in the exit corridor a lack of emergency lighting, an exit light that was not lit, the question of whether hotel personnel had been properly instructed what to do in case of fire and the sliding steelddoor with its apparently unmarked emergency chain.
Michael Pugleise, the hotel manager, said fire officials inspect the hotel every six months or a year. "We had no problem with the fire inspection. We didn't do any violation," Pugleise said.
Asked about the specific items being investigated, Pugleise said that, if there were violations, the inspectors never told the hotel about them.
"They can defend themselves all they want, but I'll give you a little clue," said Capt. M. D. Kilby of the fire prevention division of the fire department. "They've been in the hotel business for years and they known about exit corridors. They known darn well they're in violation."
Reached late yesterday at the hotel, Pugleise responded, "It's simply not a question of they're right or we're wrong, but as far as I can tell were not in any kind of violation."
Pugleise said the boxes that Kilby referred to were located in a delivery area near the employes' entrance.
W. E. Drummond, the fire inspector on the scene, said the investigation will take two weeks to complete. Drummond and other fire officials said they would have to search erecords to tell when the hotel was last inspected.
Drummond said the fire began about 10:40 a.m. in the dishwashing area of the kitchen and was accidental, probably caused by a match or cigarette used by an employe or put on a plate by a guest - a plate that then was brought down to the dishwashing area for cleaning, he speculated.
The match or cigarette ignited trash in the area, Drummond said. This blazed up, creating such heat that the paint on the ceiling ignited. Finally, according to this preliminary reconstruction, everything flammable in the kitchen, including grease used for cooking was on fire and creating a great amount of smoke.
The fire was put out before it reached other areas of the hotel, Drummond said.
Drummond was the fire inspector who investigated the Cinema Follies club fire - a year and a day ago - in which nine men died. Some of the victims in that fire died when they were trapped at a padlocked exit door, according to a finding that was confirmed by FBI Laboratory analysts.
At the Hay-Adams yesterday, a fire officials on the scene who asked not to be identified commented on the scope of the inspection problem, saying, "Anyplace you go in the city you can find violations if you want."
Another fire official, Richard M. Hubscher, Battalion fire chief in the public affairs section, dismissed a reporter's question about the boxes stacked in the exit corridor, saying, "Every hotel has" similar conditions.
But Drummond said the boxes are being investigated along with other items.And Kilby said exit corridors like the one in the Hay-Adams basement "must be clean all the way for people to get out and for firemen to come in . . .. They shouldn't be cluttered."
Kilby said regulations require that any exit door must swing outward and cannot be sliding door like the one in the Hay-Adams. The door exits to an alley that leads between buildings to 16th Street. Kilby also said that the "backup" manual system for opening the door is required to marked so that people will know what it is.
According to Kilby, hotels are required to have emergency lighting in corridors such as the one in the Hay-Adams basement, and the lighting must be run by a "secondary independent source" other than the general electrical system, such as a generator.
Kilby said hotels are not required to run fire drills for their personnel. Other fire officials said hotels are required to provide fire safety information to their personnel.
"I would never do anything that would be in violation, that would even think of taking a human being's life," said hotel manager Pugleise. "I don't work that way. Employes were notified what to do (in case of fire). They called the fire department right away."
Pugleise said the sliding steel door opens when a button is pushed and automatically closes. "We were never told it was a violation" by fire inspectors who saw it, he said. "When we talked to the people who put the door in they didn't tell us it was a violation."
The door was put in six months ago at a cost of $5,000, Pugleise said, after the city health department ordered the hotel to replace an old screen door that was always open and that let in flies.
Pugleise said that, if the backup chain should have been marked, those who installed it should have marked it.
There was no backup lighting in the corridor, Pugleise said, but again he said inspectors "never told us to have it . . . We should have been told. We've got backup lights in the elevators" because the hotel was told to put them in by city inspectors.
The boxes stacked in the corridor contained facial tissues and had just been shipped in yesterday morning, the manager said. Asked about boxes full of office files, a large wooden desk and a baby crib that a reporter saw in the corridor after the fire, Pugleise said all of these were either just placed there yesterday morning or were there on a temporary basis.
"Those hallways are clean all the time," he said.
According to people who were inside the hotel during the fire, the hotel fire alarm system worked. Several kitchen and other employes who were in the basement escaped through two other exits leading from the kitchen area.
The Hay-Adams, owned since 1972 by Washington developer Sheldon Magazine, celebrated its golden anniversary last year. The hotel is often described as one of Washington's most elegant.