A city fire inspector and an insurance company that both recently inspected the Anthony Bowen YMCA building in Shaw, which was closed abruptly by YMCA officials last week, said yesterday that the fire hazards in the 73-year-old building did not pose imminent danger.
The statements appeared to bolster YMCA critics, who maintain that the building did not have to be closed and who argue that it could be safely reopened, at least temporarily, with several thousand dollars' worth of repairs.
However, Thomas B. Hargrave, the president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, maintained that the immediate closing voted by the YMCA on Feb. 23 was the most prudent move. "The experts are not the persons that have to run the YMCA. We have our own engineering studies that said to close the building," he said.
In announcing the closing, the YMCA issued a statement headlined, "YMCA board closes Bowen building for safety reasons." It began by saying, "Safety factors today dictated the immediate closing" of Bowen. The announcement specifically cited the fact that 50 fire code violations were reported by the city fire department on Feb. 8.
But opponents of the closing have suggested that the YMCA overstated the danger and closed it more for financial reasons than for safety. And fire inspectors said yesterday that while there were potential problems in the building, they did not appear to pose imminent peril.
D.C. Fire Inspector David Jones, who inspected Bowen last month, said yesterday that if the building presented imminent danger he would have ordered it closed immediately. "In my opinion, there were some violations of a serious nature, but not to the point, in my opinion, where it should be closed for fire code violations," he said.
Jones said his primary concerns were large holes in the ceilings of the third and fourth floors, which have not been used for several years; some outdated wiring, and the lack of adequate fire doors. The remaining violations were problems like trash and storage of combustible materials, which were easily correctable, he said.
If the ceilings were repaired and fire doors installed, thus cutting off avenues through which fire might spread, then Bowen would be in "average" condition for a turn-of-the-century building, Jones said.
Raymond Kalbacher, manager of the District of Columbia Property Insurance Facility, which insured Bowen on Jan. 26, said that the company determined the building was an "acceptable risk," and would have denied coverage if it had found otherwise.
"If there were an imminent fire hazard, we wouldn't insure it, not if we knew about it," Kalbacher said. He said he could not discuss the matter further because of privacy considerations.
The company issued $235,000 worth of insurance to the YMCA for a $1,274 yearly premium, according to William H. Rumsey, chairman of Bowen's management committee and a critic of the decision to close the building.
Hargrave said that YMCA board member Marion Johnson, an architect and contractor, reported that leaks in the Bowen roof allowed water to seep into dry timbers and exposed wires. That report, said Hargrave, was the "last straw" in convincing board members that it would be reckless to keep the building open or invest more in repairs.