The call that crackled through the Marine Barracks’ radio system Wednesday wasn’t a cry for help. It was a warning. But Capt. Trey Gregory didn’t hear it that way.
He followed the scream of fire engines about a third of a mile to the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing complex, where thick black smoke and bright orange flames shot into the sky.
Gregory and about 10 other Marines from the barracks at Eighth and I Streets SE charged into the burning building alongside firefighters Wednesday afternoon, emerging again and again, pushing and pulling and carrying seniors to safety.
This spur-of-the-moment rescue probably saved several lives, officials said.
The blaze, which began about 3:20 p.m. and burned into the night, tore through the roof and into the top floor of the building. About 6:15 p.m., part of the roof collapsed. Investigators on Thursday were trying to determine what caused the fire and why a system of horns and sprinklers didn’t fully activate.
Ten residents were treated for minor injuries, including smoke inhalation, but D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Dean said Thursday that all residents were accounted for and had survived. Had Gregory and his fellow Marines not rushed to residents’ aid, that might not have been the case.
“By the grace of God we haven’t lost anybody,” D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said at the scene Wednesday. “Our firefighters were amazing. Our neighbors were amazing knocking on doors. There is no question their efforts saved lives.”
Gregory, 27, had never been inside a burning building.
He didn’t give himself time to think. Before he knew it, there he was — sprinting up stairs, knocking on doors, calling out to someone, anyone inside.
The smoke, thick with ash and debris, filled the fourth floor as water from sprinklers streamed down the walls.
As the Marines moved down the hallway, through dense double doors cordoning off sections of the building, Gregory said, he could feel heat on the other side. The fire was on the move.
“It was definitely a situation you do not want to be in. But this is what we do. We’re Marines, and when we see a crisis, we respond,” Gregory said. “Whether overseas or right here at home in D.C., we didn’t think — we just knew we needed to act. That’s the Marine in all of us.”
Some residents didn’t immediately realize there was a fire and stayed in their apartments as the building burned. Firefighters pulled several seniors to safety on ladders.
Manual fire alarms failed to sound after people pulled levers that should have triggered a system of horns, Dean said. Individual smoke alarms did sound in some apartments, but sprinklers designed to go off when flames are present did not fully activate as the fire worked its way down from above.
“We’re looking to see exactly what this setup was there,” Dean said Thursday. “Were there sprinklers, were there heat detectors, were there smoke detectors?”
Ten code compliance complaints have been filed against the building in the past 11 years, according to records from the D.C. Property and Permits Center. More than half were deemed unfounded or pertained to individual apartments. Details about the complaints were not available on Thursday.
The building’s alarm system was last checked in April, Dean said, and showed no signs of problems. Fire officials inspected the premises a year ago.
More than 40 seniors spent the night at a shelter set up inside the King Greenleaf Recreation Center in Southwest Washington, where Meals on Wheels volunteers delivered food and the Red Cross made the rounds, handing out toiletries, clothes and blankets.
“This is honestly one of the most significant disasters I’ve ever dealt with — as far as the number of people displaced, the age of the population and the complexity that that presents,” said Paul Carden, the regional disaster officer for the Red Cross, who has worked in the area for about eight years. “This would be a shock to me, let alone someone who is 60 to 70, 80 years old.”
Allen estimated that 160 residents were displaced, and “in nearly every case, these seniors have lost all of their belongings,” he wrote in a news release.
Several residents who arrived at the shelter Wednesday night were despondent at the thought of losing their home and possessions, Carden said. Photographs, documents, medications — all gone.
By Thursday morning, the number of seniors seeking help had grown. Some who spent the night with family or friends returned, seeking long-term support and a place to live.
The D.C. Department of Human Services moved residents into hotel rooms, where they will stay for the time being. In the long term, DHS will match residents with case workers, who will help them find housing and financial assistance.
“This is going to be a long road to recovery,” Carden said.
The building consists of one- and two-bedroom apartments. The roof area, where the fire is believed to have started, has a deck with a view of the Navy Yard.
Gregory said residents have always been supportive of the Marines and their presence in the neighborhood. That’s why when he heard they might be in trouble, he did not hesitate.
Looking back, he said, it seems like a blur. He could barely recall if the smoke burned his eyes as he ran through thick dark plumes.
But he does remember one thing: an elderly man in an electric wheelchair, paralyzed and unable to move. He and two other Marines tried to lift the chair, he said, but couldn’t. It was too much.
So they hoisted the man onto their shoulders and carried him through the smoky hallway, down four flights of stairs, out the door and into the hands of medics.
“These are our neighbors,” he said. “We will answer that call every single time.”