The bodies of two men were found Wednesday morning near an exit ramp from northbound Interstate 295 at Pennsylvania Avenue SE, D.C. authorities said.
D.C. police received a report of an unresponsive male in a homeless encampment off the exit ramp at 9:09 a.m., police spokesman Araz Alali said.
During the investigation, another unresponsive man was found about 50 feet away. Police have identified one of the men, who was 63, authorities said, but will not release his name until they are able to find his next of kin.
There were “no signs of foul play” in either case, Alali said, but the D.C. medical examiner had not determined how the men died. Two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the case said that the men appeared to be homeless and that police are looking into the possibility that they died of hypothermia.
A handful of hypothermia deaths are suspected to have occurred in the District during a long, punishing winter. A cold front Tuesday night brought an unusual April storm with snow and sleet to the region. Overnight, the temperature at Reagan National Airport fell to 34 degrees. With winds gusting to 30 mph, the wind chill made it feel like the 20s in the hours before dawn. Another cold night was expected Wednesday.
Police cordoned off a 30-foot-diameter circle in a small stand of trees and brush in a larger grassy area just off the northbound I-295 exit. Several small tents were visible through the trees and bushes.
Lawyers at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said they were waiting to learn whether the men were victims of the cold snap. Most of the homeless people who sleep outside were surprised by the sudden change in weather, advocates said. Many had discarded their winter-survival clothes after the warm weekend, confident that spring had finally arrived.
“That frigid weather really came out of nowhere, and I’m sure it caught folks off guard,” said the legal clinic’s director, Patricia Fugere. “I was talking to a fellow yesterday afternoon who sleeps outdoors, and he had no idea the temps were going to go below freezing.”
Hypothermia season in the region typically runs from Nov. 1 through March 31, but the D.C. Department of Human Services issued a hypothermia alert for Tuesday and Wednesday nights. During such an alert, all homeless residents have a legal right to shelter.
Even if shelters are full, the D.C. government is required to put people up at emergency shelters, motels or other accommodations. A record number of families sought emergency shelter in the District this past winter.
Police were canvassing the area where the bodies were found for more information. Ramps to exit northbound I-295 and enter southbound I-295 at Pennsylvania Avenue were closed Wednesday morning because of the investigation, but they had reopened, authorities said.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the lead agency in confirming hypothermia deaths, reports the number annually to the D.C. Council. At a hearing in February, the medical examiner’s office said there had been one confirmed hypothermia death in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
According to two advocates who monitor homeless deaths, three people believed to be homeless died on D.C. streets this past winter. But the medical examiner has not provided an official ruling on whether the cold caused those deaths.