An article about the Charles E. Smith Co., which appeared in yesterday's editions incorrectly reported that Irene A. Miller, who works at one of the firm's Crystal City apartments, was indicted on a charge of failing to report a fire promptly. In fact, an Arlington grand jury cleared Miller and she was not charged with any offense. The Washington Post sincerely regrets the error.
The Charles E. Smith Co., one of the Washington area's largest real estate development firms, and three of its employes were indicted yesterday on charges that they failed to report immediately a serious fire at an Arlington high-rise apartment building to county fire officials.
Sources said the misdemeanor indictments were sought because it was Smith's policy to report fires first to company officials rather than to the fire department as required by county law.
According to fire officials, firefighters were not called to the scene for more than 18 minutes after the blaze began to spread along the fourth floor of the 12-story luxury Crystal Plaza apartments at 2111 Jefferson Davis Hwy. in Crystal City last Feb. 6.
The fire, which took 45 firefighters 1 1/2 hours to bring under control and caused an estimated $1 million damage, was called one of the worst high-rise fires in Arlington history. Six firefighters were injured.
Charles Pilzer, a Smith attorney, said, "We've done nothing wrong." He declined to discuss the firm's policy about reporting fires, which was described by one company employe yesterday as "hazy." Conviction of the offense could result in up to a year in jail plus a $1,000 fine.
The blaze, described as having the intensity of a blowtorch, was cited by fire officials as illustrating the difficulty of fighting fires in the growing number of tall buildings in Washington's suburbs.
At a press conference last month, Deputy Arlington Fire Marshal Buck Swartz said the fire apparently was caused by a cigarette or a faulty alarm clock in apartment 406-S and quickly engulfed much of the fourth and fifth floors.
Swarz said a random check of doors in the 13-year-old building, whose tenants include Defense Secretary Harold S. Brown and Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.), disclosed that few had self-closing mechanisms, as required by the fire code. That, he said, allowed the fire to spread quickly.
Crystal Plaza was built in 1967, nearly a decade before the state adopted a stringent fire safety code, which applies only to buildings constructed since 1976.
The building is not equipped with a sprinkler system but does have smoke detectors, which some tenants complained failed to work properly during the fire.
Many of the tenants -- including Defense Secretary Brown -- ignored warnings to leave the building, preferring instead to wait in their apartments. w
In addition to the Smith company, the Arlington Circuit Court grand jury indicted H. James Kostyk, the firm's property manager; Irene A. Miller, a desk clerk at Crystal Plaza, and James R. Burton, the apartment building's resident manager.
Burton said in an interview yesterday he was "a little bit stunned" by the indictment. He said the company's policy about reporting fires is "very hazy."
"Just because you have a complaint of a burning odor or something in a hall, you don't necessarily call the fire department," he said.
"The question is, when does it become the duty of an employe to call the fire department?Our position is that we acted as quickly as possible," said Burton, who has been resident manager since 1970. "We deny any negligence."
The Smith company manages more than 15,000 residential units at 35 properties in the Washington area.
Officials at several other area property management firms said they instruct employes to first notify local fire departments if a fire is suspected or evident.
"The fire department would be called immediately," said Lee Daub, a property management official at Shannon and Luchs Co., which manages more than 18,000 apartments. "But after calling the fire department, the property manager is notified to get his assistance," Daub said.
R. Lide Glenn, vice president of the Polinger Co., which manages about 10,000 apartments, said his firm instructs switchboard operators to contact the fire department and building manager "simultaneously."
"Without looking at the instructions I'd say (the employes) would call the fire department first," said Glenn. The resident manager is contacted at the same time to investigate a suspected fire and call off the fire trucks before they arrive if the report is a false alarm, which most suspected fires are, Glenn said.
The percentage of false or needless fire alarms is actually quite small, according to area fire officials. It is less than 5 percent in Arlington, the fire marshal's office there says. However, the percentage of major fires is also quite small, with most calls resulting from relatively minor blazes, such as burning toast.