The outgoing mayor and the mayorelect, a U.S. senator, a Supreme Court justice, about half a dozen D.C. Superior Court judges, most of the City Council members and a standing-room-only audience were crowded inside the Council chambers. Several hundred well-wishers stood in the hall outside the room.
The recent inaugural ceremonies for Mayor Marion Barry went without incident on the top floor of the 74-year-old, six-story District Building. If a fire had started, those inside would have had only one way out -- down the grand, marble staircase in the front center of the building. Fire department officials said that staircase would act like a chimney, funneling flames and smoke upward. Elevators are of little help in a fire.
The District Building is a fire hazard, city officials say, and former Mayor Walter E. Washington, Mayor Barry, Council members and others said they have known it for years. Nevertheless, they allow the building to be used for offices, meetings and large gatherings. At any one point on a normal business day, hundreds of people are in the building.
"I don't mean to pit one city agency against the other, but we just can't condone what's going on," Deputy D.C. Fire Chief Carmen Del Balzo said. "All we can do is tell them about violations. We can't force the city to make changes."
Among the major hazards at the District building, Del Balzo said, are the lack of at least two other stairway exits, holes in walls and ceilings that would help a fire spread, and storage areas where combustible material is stored improperly.
Sam D. Starobin, director of the city's Department of General Services, caretaker of all city government buildings, said his department has been aware of the fire safety problems since "earlier than 1975."
"D.C. government policy is that it follows its own fire safety and building codes," Starobin said. "Why haven't we followed them in the District Buildings? We've gone forth several times to get funds to correct the problems, but somehow the funds kept slipping through the cracks. I can't give you a much better explanation than that."
Barry's press secretary, Florence Tate, said: "The mayor has known and has been saying for years, even when he was on the council, that the District Building was a fire trap. But it's an old building, there is no money, and we just have to live with what we have."
A fire inspection report, dated April 4, 1977 and sent to Starobin, showed numerous safety code violations on all floors of the classical Greek structure built in 1905.
In the mayor's fifth-floor suite of offices, for example, the report noted improper storage of combustible material behind wall draperies, instructional signs missing over alarm systems and a missing door device that would seal the office door to prevent a fire from spreading.
Another report, dated May 19, 1975, showed that fire inspectors cited two of the same problems in the mayor's suite and in other parts of the building. In both reports, more than 100 violations were noted, including oilyrags not in proper receptacles in the elevator penthouse, uncovered electrical junction boxes and numerous other minor safety code violations.
"When we checked the building in December prior to the inaugural ceremonies, we found conditions to be pretty much the same as in the 1977 report," Del Balzo said. "We knew they were going ahead with the ceremonies when we made the checks."
City officials said they have known since 1961 that the District Building does not conform to minimum fire safety standards. Then, Congress passed a law requiring buildings constructed before 1946 to have adequate exits in case of fire.
Owners of private buildings can be forced to meet the standards. A citation may be issued by the fire department specifying an amount of time to make corrections, followed by a collateral (fine) notice with a penalty of up to $300 and finally a court date and hearing set in Superior Court.
"We could give a collateral notice to a [city agency] official, for example, if he doesn't make sure the changes are made, but the corporation counsel has ruled that the city's policy is that we don't prosecute each other," fire inspector Fred H. Wharton said. "There is no written policy saying this. It's just been the tradition."
Barry's transitional task force issued a report last Dec. 21 stating that "effective enforcement of the fire code within D.C. government is made difficult or impcssible by current procedures and interference." The task force recommended that a procedure be developed for enforcement of the fire code in city buildings.
Relph Spencer, head of the city agency that conducts zoning and building inspcetions -- the agency that would make sure that owners of private buildings meet D.C. codes -- said he knows no specific laws requiring the city to meet its own standards.
"For the most part, all new construction meets the standards, but I wish there was specific legislation," Spencer said. "When violations are found, it's up to the specific agencies, not us, to make sure they are corrected."
City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), said: "I don't see the point of paying someone on the D.C. government to tell us what is wrong [with the District Building] and we don't listen.
"Certain conversions could have been made," she said. "We're taking these old structures each and every day and converting them. If we were in an apartment building, we could make the landlord make the corrections, but we can't seem to be able to do it for a city-owned building. We can aoways find money and, if a person's life is concerned, we shouldn't be that concerned about money."
Starobin told a reporter that the city has $700,000 to build District Building exists that meet safety standards. The exits could be constructed within a year, he said, and would require boring through offices on both wings of the building. That difficult job, he said, would disrupt the offices for a long time.
Many of the minor violations, particularly on the first, second and fifth floors, were alleviated during recent renovation of council and administrative offices, Starobin said.
Fire department officials said they favor legislation that would allow them to enforce safety standards in government buildings, including schools and public housing projects where personal safety still is jeopardized.
"Right now, it takes a lot of persuasion to get the government to conform to the codes, but we are making some progress," Del Baloz said.
During a two-and-a-half-day siege of the District Building in March 1977, Hanafi gunmen held 11 people hostage in the city council offices on the fifth floor's west wing. Mayor Washington and others were trapped on the east wing until they were rescued by heavy police escort. City officials were trapped because there was only one way out -- past the gunmen and down center staircases. Had there been fire exits on both wings they might have escaped.
One man was killed and several others were wounded in the incident, including then-city council member Barry, who was rescued by firemen using an extension ladder in the rear of the building.