D.C. officials yesterday defended their handling of a fatal house fire near Dupont Circle last month, admitting that the first 911 calls about the blaze were put on hold but rejecting allegations that staff shortages at the call center significantly delayed their response.
Officials also showed a surveillance camera video, taken from the Phillips Collection art gallery, that they said refuted an allegation that a D.C. police officer drove away after he was approached by a victim of the fire, which occurred Jan. 15 in a three-story brick rowhouse in the 1600 block of 21st Street NW.
Instead, officials said, officers ran toward the blazing rowhouse in an attempt to help the victims and evacuate neighbors. Three officers who responded to the fire will receive commendations from the department, a police official said.
"It obviously shows that we need to be very careful before we start making allegations about the first responders," said Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice.
Christopher Duncan Smith, 24, who was one of eight people living in the building, was burned over his entire body and died several days later. The fire's cause has not been determined.
Officials sought yesterday to rebut some accounts from neighborhood residents that 911 calls about the fire were made as early as 5:20 that morning -- 40 minutes before the first call got through -- but were put on hold. Police operators at the city's communications center handle all calls to 911 and then transfer those concerning fire emergencies to fire operators.
Officials said yesterday that the first calls made about the incident -- ferreted out by obtaining phone records for the people who said they'd called 911 -- came in at 5:58 or 5:59 a.m.
Those callers were put on hold, getting a recorded message saying that all operators were busy. They hung up before their calls were answered, officials said.
The first time anyone at the city's communications center heard of the fire was at 6 a.m., when a D.C. police officer reported smoke at the Colombian Embassy, a block away from the actual fire.
The first civilian call to get through came in at 6:01, from a man who gave a more accurate address: 21st Street and Hillyer Place NW. The police department operator attempted to transfer the call to the fire department's call taker, but it took 17 rings -- 90 seconds -- before the call was picked up.
Officials said yesterday that 13 police operators were working that day, all the staff considered necessary. But they reiterated that only one fire department operator was assigned to answer calls about fires, when there would normally have been more. A fire department communications supervisor also took calls about the fire, a spokesman said.
Kellems said the staffing problem "did not in any way create a delay in the dispatching of this fire."
The city's reassurances failed to immediately quell the controversy.
Nicolas Gutman, a resident of the rowhouse who has said he called 911 at 5:20 or 5:25 a.m. and was put on hold, said yesterday that he had not yet heard any information from police to convince him that he actually called at 5:58 or later.
"Absolutely, positively, I called before that time," Gutman said.