A major fire broke out at an apartment complex for seniors in Southeast Washington on Wednesday afternoon, forcing firefighters, bystanders and Marines to rescue residents, officials said.
The fire sent flames and black smoke shooting from the roof of the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing complex in the 900 block of Fifth Street SE. Some residents reported that no fire alarms sounded as the blaze spread.
Four people were taken to a hospital for minor injuries, D.C. Acting Fire Chief Milton E. Douglas said at an evening news conference. The fire was initially reported about 3:20 p.m. and began on the roof, Douglas said. Several residents were rescued via ladders.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. Flames continued to rise from the apartment complex for much of the evening, but fire officials said the blaze had been contained. The roof had buckled about 6:15 p.m., sending a fresh round of flames into the sky.
“Units had extensive issues with extinguishing the fire because of the volume,” Douglas said.
Firefighters used four ladder trucks and multiple ground units to try to bring the blaze under control. Units from Maryland also responded to the scene.
A video tweeted by the fire department showed a firefighter carrying a person down a ladder leaning against the side of the apartment building.
The privately operated apartment complex has 162 one- and two-bedroom units with as many as 190 occupants, according to the D.C. Housing Authority. All are affordable-housing units.
Ramona Williams smelled smoke outside her and her father’s second-floor apartment, so she went into the hall to investigate about 3:15 p.m. She saw no smoke or flames and returned to the apartment to care for her 73-year-old father, James Williams, who has multiple sclerosis and is paralyzed from the neck down, she said.
Minutes later, workers knocked loudly at the door, yelling that there was a fire. Ramona Williams opened the door and firefighters told her to get out, but she explained that her father was too heavy for her to move.
Firefighters told her to wait inside and that help would arrive soon. Minutes later, three uniformed Marines arrived. They pulled James Williams from a bed to a mobile chair bed.
But the chair got stuck in a stairwell on the way down, and Ramona Williams went ahead without her father.
It took her 20 minutes to reunite with him inside the Marine gym across the street.
Now she is just concerned about two cats she left behind inside and where they may end up now that their home is in jeopardy.
“I feel displaced, like we don’t have anywhere to go,” Ramona Williams said.
She said this is the third fire in the building since she moved there with her father in 2009. Fire alarms and sprinklers worked during the previous fires, she said.
“They always went off before,” she said.
Williams said she saw Marines carrying at least six other people who are paralyzed out of the building.
Lewis Watts was visiting his 89-year-old father, James, to feed him when maintenance workers began banging on the second-floor apartment’s door.
“They just screamed: ‘Fire! Fire! Get out, get out!’ ” Lewis Watts said as he wheeled his father away from the building. “No sprinklers came on. We heard no fire alarms. Nothing, man.”
Bruce DarConte, president of Near Southeast Community Partners, said he was working in his home across the street from the apartment complex when he noticed smoke billowing from the roof. He said he immediately called 911.
“My wife and I went across the street and heard no fire alarms or anything,” DarConte said. “We started banging on doors We got a lot of folks out on the first and second floor.”
He said firefighters then arrived and took over.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) wrote on Twitter that all residents of the building were accounted for.
“We aren’t sure how the fire started at Arthur Capper Senior Building in Navy Yard,” Allen wrote in a statement. “D.C. Firefighters needed to rescue a few residents via window from the higher floors. When neighbors saw there was smoke, they ran into the building and started alerting senior residents by knocking on doors.”
Allen said in an interview that he was on the phone with fourth-floor residents, urging them to leave the building even as they insisted that their building was not ablaze because they heard no fire alarms and the sprinklers did not activate.
He said he has passed along details about what he saw and what he heard from residents to the fire marshal and will await the results of the investigation before reaching conclusions about the alarm and sprinkler systems. But Allen also said he cannot ignore what he personallyexperienced and plans to find out what happened.
Allen praised neighbors from across the street who raced inside to warn residents, as well as firefighters who rescued people who could not leave their beds and wheelchairs.
“By the grace of God we haven’t lost anybody. Our firefighters were amazing. Our neighbors were amazing knocking on doors. There is no question their efforts saved lives,” Allen said at the scene.
He said he spoke with residents who fear they lost everything — from photos of their children and grandchildren to their medications.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak that is about to come. The most important thing though is that everybody is safe and alive,” Allen said.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at the Wednesday evening at a news conference that she had also received reports that residents did not hear fire alarms, but she said an investigation would have to determine whether there were problems with the system.
Bowser said residents displaced by the fire would be housed at the nearby King Greenleaf Recreation Center. The Red Cross was also on scene providing help. She said city officials would ensure the elderly residents got medicines and other necessary supplies.
Bowser also said that fire marshals had not entered the building, and won’t until the fire is out.
The firefighter on the ladder in the video tweeted by the department, a department spokesman at the scene said, was Davon McRae, whose father, Lt. Kevin McRae, was the 100th D.C. firefighter to die in the line of duty at the time of his 2015 heart attack while fighting an apartment fire.