Young said the inspector sent a letter to the owner but took no further action. He said inspectors with the fire department failed to act on the officer’s complaint and subsequent emails about the rowhouse, which was partitioned into small rooms and lacked a permit for rentals.
Fitsum Kebede, 40, who came to the United States from Ethiopia more than a decade ago, and Yafet Solomon, 9, described as one of the “brightest stars” at Barnard Elementary School, died after being pulled from the burning house on Aug. 18.
“It is clear that our agencies should have done more to better protect our residents,” Young said. An independent audit is being conducted to uncover flaws and fix them, District officials said, and a total of four employees from both agencies have been put on leave.
The officer, along with several colleagues, had responded to the house to resolve a dispute between a tenant and the landlord. He wrote in a report that he immediately noticed the building appeared to be an unlicensed rooming house and had numerous potential fire code violations, including “make shift doors with locks which would make it difficult to exit in an emergency.”
He wrote in his report that he “strongly recommend” inspectors respond, and portions of the report were written in bold for emphasis.
The Sunday fire started in the basement of the two-story house along a commercial strip in Brightwood Park. Both victims lived in the basement. Kebede died the same day as the fire; Yafet, who lived with his mother, died two days later.
Investigators from the District and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have not determined how the fire started, and officials said Tuesday that the U.S. attorney’s office has launched a criminal investigation. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor declined to comment.
DCRA officials had initially said inspectors had never gone to the property because no complaints were filed. But officials said on Tuesday that they subsequently searched for emails and other records listing that address and found several from the police officer, along with his report.
During the March 21 call, Young said, the officer got inside the rowhouse and talked with the owner.
Young said that in addition to the report, the officer sent emails to DCRA and the fire department. He said DCRA inspectors failed to follow up and seek a search warrant after they were denied entry. He said inspectors with the fire department did not act because they assumed it was a DCRA matter.
The administrator said several reforms will be implemented to ensure agencies communicate better and supervisors follow up more closely on cases.
The DCRA has said the rowhouse was licensed as a pharmacy and lacked the permits needed to rent to people. Tenants have described a building partitioned into a dozen tiny rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. The fire chief said firefighters encountered bars on exterior doors and windows and an interior door and metal gate blocking a hallway. Officials said there were no working smoke detectors.
The house is owned by James G. Walker, who has not responded to interview requests, including one made Tuesday.
News of the District’s failures came on the eve of the funeral for Yafet. He lived with his mother in a basement apartment and had attended Barnard Elementary School. Police had initially given his name as Yafety. His school and the funeral home spell it Yafet.
His mother and other relatives have not talked publicly about Yafet or the fire. A vigil is scheduled for Friday in front of the house that burned.
Yafet’s teachers at Barnard launched a GoFundMe page to help the family, and they posted a photo of the boy in a blue striped shirt standing in front of a wall of paper butterflies. A school system spokesman confirmed the page is authentic.
On the GoFundMe site, the teachers said they prepared for the new school year that began Monday by writing each student’s name on their desk. “We thought about getting to know them, learning their dreams, and about the journey we would have this year,” they wrote. “On Thursday we learned that one of those desks will be empty.”
The teachers who knew Yafet compiled a list of his attributes. He wanted to be a lawyer. He was kind and courteous. He helped classmates resolve conflicts. He was “extremely funny.” He had a passion for reading that was infectious.
One teacher recently ran into Yafet in a mall, “dragging his mom around to be sure he had all his supplies for school,” anxious for classes to start. Little did the teacher know, teachers wrote on GoFundMe, “this would be her last hug, her final conversation and her last moments with Yafet.”