An elderly, wheelchair-bound and mentally incapacited resident of D.C. Village, a city-run nursing home, has been hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns after staff members found him in scalding water in a bathtub.

George Austin Spells, 71, was listed in serious condition at Washington Hospital Center last night with burns on 12 percent of his body.

Spells' sister, Katheryn Spells Jackson, said the bath area at D.C. Village is right across from the nurses' station and she could not understand how her brother could have entered the area late Tuesday and plunged himself into the scalding water without staff members noticing.

"He is a very weak person, in a wheelchair, quite incapacited," Jackson said. "What I don't understand is how in the world he could have gotten into the tub right next to the nurses' station. If he screamed, why was he not heard?"

Mayor Marion Barry, asked about the incident at his monthly press conference yesterday, said the staff at D.C. Village is doing a good job and called this type of problem "almost inevitable."

"There will always be some tragedy, some human error," he said, adding that this does not mean he condones it.

Charles Seigel, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Services, which operates D.C. Village in far Southwest Washington, said the incident was being investigated. The facility was the subject of another internal investigation two months ago after an 86-year-old resident was found frozen to death on the D.C. Village grounds, next to her tipped-over wheelchair.

That investigation found that staff members did not follow the facility's rules when they failed to search immediately for the woman when she was not in her room during a bed check.

Seigel said staff members on the late shift were being interviewed yesterday on what happened and how Spells could have gotten into the tub without their knowledge. Seigel said Spells had done this before and had been admonished for it.

Jackson said the staff "had to be negligent . . . . You don't expect something like that to happen at a place like that."

Spells worked for a tobacco company for 25 years in North Carolina before his sister brought him to live with her in Washington in 1965, she said. In the late 1970s, he went into the city-run Glenn Dale Hospital, in suburban Maryland, and was moved to D.C. Village when Glenn Dale was closed a few years later, Jackson said.

Jackson said her brother did not recognize her at first when she went to see him yesterday but seemed to understand when she said she would return.

Only two weeks ago, Spells fell down and had to get stitches over his eye, Jackson said.