The Northwest Washington boarding home where nine women mental outpatients died in a 1 a.m. blaze yesterday should not have been allowed to operate because of an array of fire safety and licensing violations, city officials said yesterday.
The structure at 1715 Lamont St. NW not only was operating without a current business license but was not equipped with either required fire doors or a fire escape, officials said.
The two-alarm fire, which drew demands from the D.C. City Council and Congress for investigations of the disaster, ripped through the turn-of-the-century, three story duplex in the Mount Pleasant area, gutting much of the structure. Two victims were burned beyond recognition, and others were asphyxiated. One Woman jumped to her death from a second-story window. Six other women residents were injured.
Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) said he would add the Lamont Street fire to the agenda of investigative hearings he will hold on April 25. The purpose of the hearings is to look into fires in Pennsylvania and Missouri that killed a total of 34 people, Pepper's office said.
City Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), who spent several hours at the scene of the fire yesterday, said he will call for a City Council investigation into the blaze.
Ralph E. Spencer, the city's chief building inspector, said; "The evidence indicates that the certificate of occupancy for 1715 Lamont St. was issued in violation of certain requirements of the building code. The certificate of occupancy should not have been issued."
The foster care facility, purchased in February 1978 by two lawyers, John G. Carleton and Mark Brodski, as a real estate investment for $210,000 was leased to the Volunteers of America, a private social service organization that placed outpatients there from St. Elizabeths Hospital.
In leasing the facility from Carleton and Brodski, the Volunteers of America assumed responsibility for compliance with business license requirements.
The blaze raced through one side of the building and was brought under control within a half hour. It has raised questions among officials not only about fire safety deficiencies but also about the city's licensing procedures and the manner in which the Volunteers of America operated the 21-room complex for the 47 patients living there.
"Those people had a right to believe they were in safe building," Spenncer said. "That's our job, to make sure those buildings are safe as possible. We just fell down on the job."
Specifically, Spencer said, a housing inspector who examined the building last May 3 failed to report there was no fire escape and that there were no fire doors-3/4-inch-thick doors with metal on one side required for each of the 21 living units.
"The inspector apparently fell asleep," Spencer said. Spencer's boss, deputy housing director James Clay, said his department is investigating the matter but refused to identify the inspector.
"I do not want to highlight a particular person because there might be more than one person involved," Clay said.
But Mayor Marion Barry, who visited the Lamont Street scene yesterday afternoon, said he plans "to find out who the inspector was."
" . . . If some people were derelict," Barry said, "then we will take appropriate action . . . We cannot allow citizens to live in unsafe places."
The mayor added: "I intend to be personally responsible for the investigation and to find out if someone who approved something that should not have been approved."
Adding to the array of problems was the fact that a year-old law consolidating the inspection and licensing of such "group homes" under the city's Department of Human Resources was not put into effect because the DHR lacked both money and personnel.
The DHR estimates 450 such facilities in the District of Columbia have not been inspected and licensed under the new law.
Under present practice, inspections and licensing are done by scattered agencies in the District government- housing, fire and environmental services departments - and are funneled into the Department of Economic Development, which issues business licenses and certificates of occupancy.
Although the Lamont Street home had a certificate of occupancy, it lacked a business license at the time of the fire. Business licences must be renewed annually. The Lamont Street home was to renew its last November but never applied,, officials said.
Also, D.C. Fire Department inspectors last checked the home on July 11, 1978, but apparently overlooked the missing fire escape and fire doors.
Carmel DelBalzo, chief of the fire marshal's office, said Fire Marshal Khalil Hassan reported a fire alarm system out of order but apparently "did not recognize" the other violations.
In the intricate world of city inspections, DelBalzo explained, fire escapes and fire doors come under the domain of building inspectors, not fire inspectors.
"It's not our bag," DelBalzo said. When a fire inspector sees a building lacking fire escapes or fire doors, he said, the inspector is supposed to refer the matter to the building inspectors' office in the city's housing department.
But in the case of the Lamont Street home, these violations were never referred to housing. "We are familiar with the building code but not experts in it," DelBalzo said. ". . . It's entirely possible he [the inspector] went through quickly."
Still another group of inspectors-housing inspectors for the Department of Housing and Community Development-checked the Lamont Street home last May 11 for possible overcrowding. The inspectors found none but did find two people living in rooms that were too small. This was corrected, inspectors said.
The home is licensed to house 51 residents. There were 47 living there at the time of the fire.
In an effort to tighten the inspection system for the estimated 450 group homes, half-way houses and foster homes in the District, the City Council enacted legislation in late 1977 centralizing the inspection and licensing authority under the Department of Human Resources.
DHR, in conjunction with experts and inspectors from housing, fire and environmental services departments, was to enforce strict new standards for the homes, but funding for the program was cut out from last year's budget.
Meanwhile, DHR managed just yesterday to put a temporary four-member survey team onto the streets to start inspections of the homes. DHR director Albert Russo said yesterday he hopes to get full funding got eight employes for the program in the fiscal 1980 budget.
Carleton and Brodski, the owners of the Lamont Street home, are law partners who have purchased several apartment buildings and 30 to 40 single-family dwellings throghout the Mount Pleasant and Adams-Morgan areas in recent years. Carleton also owns a second property at 3932 14th St. NW used by Volunteers of America as a residence for recently released prisoners.
The Volunteers of America was formed in 1896 when it split from the Salvation Army and began a social rehabilitation program initially aimed at "relieving poverty in the slums . . . , skid row derelicts and former convicts," according to the organization's advertisements.
Today VOA runs a nationwide program with an annual budget near $20 million. It has won support of national leaders from government, industry and academia and follows a custom of making honorary chairmen out of presidential first ladies.
VOA operates 21 nonprofit, low-income housing projects; 9 nursing homes; 25 group homes for children, 12 group homes for the retarded, 56 halfway houses for alcoholics as well as other community centers for families, the groups literature says.
John F. McMahon, VOA's commissioner in chief, said through the organization's public relations firm yesterday that, "The loss of life resulting from last night's fire in our Washington, D.C., halfway house has caused the deepest anguish among our staff.
"While all possible precautions are constantly taken to protect the residents of rehabilitations homes of this type, accidents of the kind that caused this tragedy are unavoidable under conditions of congregate living for disadvantaged people," the statement said.
VOA officials challenged any suggestion that the home did not meet fire or housing code requirements.
James F. Whitt, executive director for the home said, "The fire alarm was rung. The fire extinguisher was used. The building went through a fire inspection before they got the permits. There are no stipulations against an open stairwell and there is no requirement for fire doors beyond what exists. They could not have gotten their occupancy permits without passing all these requirements."
The early-morning blaza turned half the structure into a chimney-like inferno and fatally trapped nearly half the residents of the house's east wing on uper floors.
Some struggled from their beds only to be overcome by thick, asphyxiating smoke that billowed up a central stairwell. Others scrambled out of windows to the safety of front porch overhang, where they shivered in their night clothes until firemen crawled up ladders to rescue them.
By late yesterday, police had released the names of five of the dead:Nell Dodson, 75; Margaret Garvey, 57; Angie Eammelli, 48; Catherine Elsea, 61, and Nancy Inman, 62, Police said two of the victim's bodies were burned beyond recognition and would have to be identified from dental records. Two other victims had been positively identified, but police were withholding the names until their relatives could be notified.
Three of the fire's survivors were admitted to Washington Hospital Center. One of them, a 79-year-old woman, was listed in very critical condition suffering from second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body. Another victim, a 58-year-old, underwent surgery for massive injuries she received when she jumped out of a window on an upper floor. Her injuries included a broken spine, pelvis, hip, right ankle, left leg and an elbow, hospital officials said.
At least three other women were treated for smoke inhalation and burns over small portions of their bodies.
From the reports of homicide detectives, firemen and fire inspectors, the blaza began in the first-floor smoking parlor of the house shortly before 1 a. m. One of the residents. a woman described as being in her 50s and a heavy smoker, accidentally ignited the couch with a flaming pack of matches and screamed for help.
The resident manager of the group home, Denise Hilton, said, "The woman came and got me." Hilton said she called for a maintenance man who lives in the basement of the west wing of the house, "but when we came back, it had just gone all over," she added as she threw her arms in the air as a gesture.
Fire officials said the blaza spread rapidly from the couch, to the wall behind it and leaped across the ceiling to an archway that opened on the stairwell.
Hilton said she ran around the two sections of the house, spreading the alarm. But there was not enought time, she said, to get all the residents out of the building.
"It went so quick. There just wasn't anything we could do," Hilton said, her eyes damp.She would not comment further after one of volunteers of America supervisors arrived and ordered her not to say anything "without authorization."
Fire officials say that open stairwells in old buildings provide a "natural draft" similar to that provided by a chimney. The draft pulls fresh air from below and creates a virtual fireball that is pulled by the rising, superheated air to upper floors.
By the end of the day, the fire had been ruled accidental, Del Balzo said-"misuse of smoking material."
It could not be immediately determined how many of the residents were on medication and whether the effects of medication might have prevented some of the victims from rising to the alarm.
"I'm sure some are on medication, probably tranquilzers and medication that allow them to function in the community," said Harold Thomas, special assitant to the director of St. Elizabeths.
"Based on my experience, I don't think the patients are overmedicated," he said.
James F. Whitt, identified as the VOA's executive director for the Lamont Street foster care house, said through a spokesman, "St. Elizabeths doctors have designated all of these patients as self-medicated. This means they carry home their own medication."
He said the medicatin was not administered by the staff, but that it was collected and stored in a central location.
The nine deaths on Lamont Street come at a time when the nation is undergoing a widespread policy debate over "de-institutionalizing" the mentally ill.
Indeed St. Elizabeths Hospital is under court order from U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson to find less restrictive facilities-such as nursing homes and group homes-to care for patients who are well enough to live outside the hospital.
In February, an agreement was announced whereby District and federal officials agreed to a $29.5 million plan to provide alternative treatment programs in the community for St. Elizabeths patients.
The most active group in the Washington area in the trend to move mental patients out of large institutional settings has been the Mental Health Law project, which brought the suit that forced St. Elizabeths and District officals to begin seeking community homes for more than 3,000 patients.
An attorney with the project, Margaret Ewing, said the law project petitioned the federal court last July to force District and federal officials to enforce a two-year-old D.C. law that would have placed group homes such as the one on Lamont Street under strict new licensing procedures-including added fire code requirements.
D.C. lawyers challenged the petition, saying that Congress has failed to appropriate funds to implement the licensing law. Judge Robinson, who presides over the case, has not ruled on the injunction request.
Also contributing to this story were Washington Post staff writers Joseph E. Bouchard, B. D. Colen, Jackson Diehl, Christopher Dickey, Jean S. Fugett Jr., Alfred E. Lewis, Thomas Sherwood, Joanne Stevens, Patrick Tyler, Thomas Morgans, Athelia Knight and researcher Regina Fraind . CAPTION: Picture, "Smoking room" of group home shows effects of fire that killed nine women outpatients of St. Elizabeths Hospital. One body was found at base of the sairs. By James A. Parcen-The Washington Post