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‘Well, we’re alive’: Two months after D.C. fire, displaced seniors struggle to regain their footing

A Marine serves Robert Sparrow during a Thanksgiving meal for the displaced seniors. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Two months after the fire took everything, a group of seniors gathered in a District ballroom to break bread and give thanks in the spirit of the holiday.

It was not easy to do.

The seniors, all former residents of the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing complex in Southeast Washington, lost decades of mementos in the September blaze. Photographs burned to dust, records melted, furniture charred beyond repair. Dogs and cats are missing or dead.

One woman struggled to eat her meal without dentures. The fire had taken those, too.

Most of the roughly 160 families whose homes were destroyed are living in hotel rooms, unsure when they’ll be given a more permanent fix.

Many were growing desperate. Others, resigned.

Before the turkey was served, organizers from various nonprofit groups prompted the crowd to give thanks.

“Well, we’re alive,” said Mary Laney, 79.

Then she began to cry.

‘It’s gone, all of it’s gone’: Residents of senior apartment complex that burned reflect on what may be lost

The fire, which began about 3:20 p.m. Sept. 19, burned through the roof of the complex and into the top floor of the building. Thick smoke filled the halls. About a dozen Marines, neighbors and crews of firefighters pulled residents from their homes. They carried them down stairs and pulled them out of their windows.

Everyone who lived in the building, in the 900 block of Fifth Street SE, survived — including 74-year-old Raymond Holton, who remained trapped inside his second-floor apartment for five days after his neighbors had been evacuated.

Fire officials said Tuesday that the cause of the fire is still unknown, though an investigation is ongoing.

Marine Capt. Trey Gregory was one of the first to run into the building as it burned.

Photos from the scene of a fire at the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing complex in Southeast Washington

Sept. 19, 2018 | D.C. firefighters work as a fire rages at the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing complex in the 900 block of Fifth Street SE. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A system of fire alarms and sprinklers failed to activate, leaving many residents unaware. So Gregory and his fellow Marines went door to door, knocking and hollering and carrying seniors to safety.

In the two months since, Gregory has made an effort to attend every meal and event for the displaced seniors. He mingled with them last month at a reunion in Mount Vernon Square hosted by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). On Tuesday, he carved a turkey and filled the seniors’ plates with cuts of meat.

“The happiest thing for me is to see these people again and to help put a smile on their face after everything they’ve been through,” Gregory said. “I just look at them and think, ‘These people could be my grandparents.’ What if they were?”

‘These are our neighbors’: Marines pulled D.C. seniors to safety as their homes burned

He was joined Tuesday by six other Marines who handed out stuffing, salad and sweet potatoes as the seniors snaked their way down the buffet. Gregory was the only one who had been there that day, as the fire bore down through the walls.

“I can’t believe they’re here again, taking care of us,” said James Witcher, 73. “They were nice to us on that day. They took care of us then.”

The buffet, organized by AARP and World Central Kitchen, was one of several Thanksgiving meals being offered to the displaced seniors this week. The management company that operated the senior apartment complex announced it would host a dinner Thursday for former residents.

The company, Edgewood Management, launched an internal investigation into apparent safety lapses. After the blaze was extinguished, city officials said Edgewood had assured them that all residents were accounted for and safe — even though Holton, who was trapped inside, was missing.

“The safety and security of our residents in the communities we serve is our top priority,” a representative for the Gaithersburg company, Michael Ford, said in an email. He added that the company is working with D.C. officials “to understand exactly what happened and why.”

Management company that oversees senior apartment complex that burned promises investigation

Residents on Tuesday said they had questions of their own.

“Somebody didn’t do their job,” said Joyce Lewis, 74. “And someone could have died because of it.”

Lewis, who had to flee her apartment with a sack full of medications and as many oxygen tanks as she could carry, lived on the top floor of the four-story building. She was asleep when the fire erupted.

She awoke to the smell of smoke and a neighbor shouting at her door.

“It looked like the devil himself was there with those flames,” she said.

Lewis, a diabetic who said she needs to change her oxygen every 30 minutes with a new five-pound canister, said living in a hotel has been particularly challenging for those with medical conditions.

She can’t eat the hotel meals, and her mobility has been limited. Some days, she said, she feels like no one is listening, like nobody cares whether she lives or dies.

“It takes so much out of you to keep pushing for what you need and not getting it,” she said.

Dorothy Price, 71, said her husband hasn’t returned from a nursing home since the fire because of concerns over his health and how he might fare in a hotel room.

She canceled a trip to South Carolina to visit family, not wanting to miss getting called for an apartment.

“It’s Thanksgiving, and it’s almost Christmas, and it don’t feel like it for us at all,” she said.

For many, the holidays will be a stark reminder of everything they’ve lost.

Emily Jackson, 76, said she left her dog inside her second-floor apartment when she evacuated, thinking the fire would be snuffed out fast.

Instead, it burned for two days.

When she asked firefighters whether they could look for her dog, they said the building was too unstable. The roof had collapsed.

Snoopy, a mutt from the pound, would hide under Jackson’s bed when he got nervous. For days, she said, she thought he might have survived.

“That was my baby,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I miss him so much.”

Only one thing from Jackson’s apartment was recovered: a gift from her late sister, a small metal angel taped to the bedroom door.

“Of all the things, this is what came back to me,” she said.

Now she carries the ornament in her purse. On bad days, she wears it around her wrist.

It reminds her that she survived. That she’s still here. That there is still something to be grateful for.

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