The Charles E. Smith Co., one of the area's largest real estate development firms, was acquitted yesterday by an Arlington judge on a charge of failing to promptly report a serious fire in one of its high-rise apartment buildings.
County prosecutors who brought the misdemeanor charge against the firm, which manages more than 15,000 rental units in the metropolitan area, argued that a desk clerk at the posh Crystal Plaza complex in South Arlington violated the county fire code by waiting 13 minutes to report the fire.
But Chief General District Court Judge Richard W. Corman disagreed."The most I can figure out," said Corman after hearing four hours of testimony, "is that there could have been a delay of three to five minutes and that is substantial compliance with the ordinance."
"Obviously justice has triumphed again," said Smith attorney Charles Pilzer of the verdict. Defense attorneys had argued that although the desk clerk might have delayed in reporting the fire, company policy required that all fires be reported immediately to the fire department.
Smith and three of its employes -- including desk clerk Irene Miller -- were indicted by an Arlington grand jury last winter. Several county officials said at the time that those indictments were sought because it was Smith policy to report fires first to management officials rather than to the fire department as required by law.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney William B. Nunn presented no evidence of that yesterday, however, and declined to discuss whether he had changed his theory of the case.
Last May, a Circuit Court judge dismissed the case against Smith and three employes -- property manager H. James Kostyk, resident manager James R. Burton, and Miller -- holding that the misdemeanor charge should properly be heard in the lower General District Court.
Although prosecutors said they would refile the charge against all of the defendants, only the Smith company was brought to trial. No charges have been refiled against the employes.
The charge stemmed from a Feb. 6 blaze at the 12-story luxury apartments at 2111 Jefferson Davis Hwy., which fire officials called one of the worst fires in Arlington history. Six firefighters were injured during a 90-minute struggle to control the fire, which did an estimated $1 million damage.
The blaze, described as having the intensity of a blowtorch, was cited by fire officials as illustrative of the difficulties of fighting fires in the area's growing number of high-rise buildings.
Fire officials said the blaze, which quickly engulfed the fourth and fifth floors, was apparently caused by a cigarette or a faulty alarm clock in apartment 406-S. Many tenants in the 13-year-old building, including Defense Secretary Harold S. Brown, ignored warnings to leave, preferring instead to wait inside their apartments.
But several tenants testified yesterday that they left their apartments when they smelled smoke.
Laurence Blow, an aerospace engineer with the Defense Department, said he was in a friend's fourth floor apartment when both noticed a "funny smell."
"Ten or 15 minutes later I noticed it again . . . it smelled like an electrical fire," said Blow. "I looked around the apartment and didn't see anything unusual and then I . . . looked into the hallway to see what was wrong."
Blow testified that he saw thick smoke and that his friend, Terry Wininger, called the front desk to report the fire at 11:05 p.m. Both testified that they pounded on neighbors' doors to alert them and then went to the lobby to see the desk clerk.
"I told the desk clerk it was really bad upstairs," said Wininger, a contract specialist with the Navy Department. Wininger testified that the desk clerk made three short phone calls, answered a few incoming calls from tenants apparently reporting the smoke and then called the fire department.
Fire officials testified that the first call they received was from a tenant at 11:17 p.m. A second call was received 25 seconds later from a woman who did not identify herself, fire officials testified, but who they assumed was Miller. Attorneys for the Smith Co. attempted to refute Wininger's testimony, saying that criminal negligence on the part of the Smith Co. could not be proved.
"I doubt if you've ever heard of the Hecht Co. being tried for reckless driving because one of its employes ran a red light," said Smith attorney S. Haynie Trotter, who argued that "there is no evidence of any undue delay whatsoever" on Miller's part.
Corman apparently agreed, saying his sole concern was not the seriousness of the fire, but whether management officials delayed in reporting the fire after they learned it was in progress.
At several times during the trial Corman impatiently warned prosecutors to avoid testimony about the seriousness of the blaze.
"I don't care whether it was a conflagration that was going to engulf the whole building or a wastebasket on fire," the judge said. "The question I'm here to decide is whether the fire was reported promptly."