YES, THE FIRE at the Lamont Street boarding home that took the lives of nine female mental patients was an accident.A resident arose after midnight for a cigarette. The full book of matches ignited and dropped on a couch. The flames raced up an open stairwell of the turn-of-the-century structure. It was a genuine tragedy.
Yet it is hard to look at the prehistory of this fire without believing that it was a preventable tragedy and that the responsible party, the District government, failed to prevent it. On May 3, 1978, building inspectors toured the home, but somehow overlooked the fact that it had neither fire escape nor fire doors, as required, and they issued a certificate of occupancy anyway. On May 11, housing inspectors came through but looked only for evidence of overcrowding, finding none. On July 11, fire inspectors arrived; in the District's crazy quilt, fire escapes and fire doors fall under the building department, but the fire inspectors could have reported their absence to the building department, and they did not. In November, the home should have applied to renew its business license but it did not, and no one checked.
Do you feel that this blindly disjointed inspection system was virtually invented to allow places like Lamont Street to fall through the cracks? The City Council felt so in 1977 and passed a law centralizing licensing and inspection authority in the Department of Human Resources. It will surprise no one familiar with the travails of that department that it could not put together the funds and personnel to do the job. There are some 450 group homes in the District. DHR has yet to inspect one.
"These people had a right to believe they were in a safe building," the city's chief building inspector lamented after the Lamont Street fire. "We just fell down on the job." Exactly so. Infact, given the trend toward moving occupants of various health and penal institutions into locations in the community, the problems of group-home care are bound to grow. And since these people are rarely among the community's most influential citizens, they and their sponsors will often lack the political clout and economic means that would help them receive the protections they need. They are, in brief, peculiarly vulnerable to the frailties of municipal government. The problem is bureaucratic but ultimately political. Marion Barry was elected mayor precisely to take this sort of situation in hand.