On Thursday afternoon, nearly 24 hours after the fire began at the Arthur Capper Senior Housing complex (900 Fifth St. SE), a strong smell of smoke still hung in the air. Fire hoses lay limp around the building’s perimeter and blue sky peeked from smashed-through windows.
Fire crews were still at the complex making sure the building was coming down to temperature correctly and watching for any small fires that could break out. Fire Chief Shawn Downs had been there since Wednesday and plans to stay as long as necessary.
“Right now, we’re keeping one engine and two trucks,” Downs said. “The plan is to keep doing that so long as we continue to have what we call ‘hotspots,’ and [until] we deem that there’s absolutely, positively, no way that anything else can get inflamed.”
Most of the damage was caused by the water used in fighting the blaze, Downs said. The sidewalks around the building are still damp, plastered with wet family photographs, old records and prescription bottles.
Transporting Residents from the Rec Center
A mile away from the Arthur Capper Senior Housing complex is the King Greenleaf Recreation Center, where most of the complex’s more than 150 displaced residents spent the night after the fire.
Members from the Red Cross, DC’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and the State Superintendent’s Office spent most of Thursday relocating the residents to temporary shelter in nearby hotels.
“We’re doing reception operations as well as sheltering people over night,” said DHS Chief of Emergency Management Matthew Aiken, adding that the critical part is getting the residents registered with the Strong Families program, which provides social services in coordination with District Agencies.
DHS is also ensuring the residents are well-fed and that they receive their required medication.
“The things with [the residents’] personal items, identification, critical documents, that is a secondary priority,” Aiken said. “Right now, it’s just getting them stabilized, getting them food, getting their medication and making sure that they’re comfortable.”
‘Nothing Went Off’
Residents are still in shock as they remember the day of the fire.
“It was chaos,” said Amanda Taylor, President of the complex’s Tenant Association. Taylor was riding the bus when someone on it mentioned the fire. At the time, she was only six blocks away from home, and she immediately got off the bus and walked the rest of the way there.
“I was standing there watching it [burn],” she said. “We lost everything, the people in there did.”
Taylor said that residents in the building were surprised by the fire, because the smoke alarms and sprinklers had not been activated.
“[Residents of the building] came up and told me that the smoke detectors didn’t go off,” Taylor said.
“The sprinklers didn’t go off. Nothing went off. So, some of the old ladies didn’t even know until they opened up their door to the smoke.”
“It just burned like paper,” Taylor said of the building. She holds the few possessions she still has in a grey plastic bag: a phone charger and one blouse. “This is what I have,” she said, raising her phone and the plastic bag in one hand and motioning to the clothes she has on with the other.
Resident Lionel McNil said he didn’t realize there was a fire until someone came to his door. He claimed that no managers were present or on-duty the day of the fire, though his report could not be verified by the Hill Rag.
“I just know I was sitting there in my apartment and [a maintenance staffer] started knocking on the door saying ‘Fire! Get out!” McNil said. “I ran out there, ran out front and saw the roof was on fire.”
“I mean it’s devastating because basically you’re starting all over again,” McNil said. He left his wallet in his apartment, and assumes he lost most forms of identification, including his bank cards, social security card, and Medicaid card.
A Place to Call Home
There are multiple fundraisers taking place to benefit the victims of the Arthur Capper Senior Housing complex fire, and individual donations like clothes, shoes, and non-perishable food items can still be made. Aiken asks that they be coordinated through Serve DC.
The most urgent need, however, is finding permanent housing for the victims.
While Taylor has the option of staying with her grandson, she’s chosen to stay with the residents to give emotional and logistical support. She said many of her neighbors are in poor health and need new homes quickly.
“These are elderly people who are sickly that have to go back and forth to the doctor,” Taylor said. “Hotel rooms just aren’t built for everyday living, in other words. So, they need their place to live.”
“Elderly people don’t worry so much about clothes and new shoes and music, it’s mostly a place to call home. That’s what they need. They really do.”
McNil plans to stay in the allocated hotel for a few days, then move-in with his sister until he, or the government, finds himself a new home.
“I mean it’s devastating because basically you’re starting all over again,” McNil said. “You hear about it all the time but you never think it’d happen to you, until it does happen to you.”
How to Help
The Capitol Hill Community Foundation has partnered with the Van Ness Elementary School PTO to accept donations, and donations are also being accepted by Southeast Community Partners. Mexican restaurant Agua 301 (301 Water St. SE) will give 10% of sales to residents from the Give Back Sundays on September 23 and September 30. District Winery will donate 10% of all carryout wine sales between Friday, September 20 and Sunday, September 23. Willow boutique (1331 Fourth St. SE) is donating 10% of sales through Sunday to help with relief, and MRP Realty will match The Salt Line donations of 5% of their sales on Wednesday, September 26.
Matthew Litman is an intern at Capital Community News. He is pursuing a Literary Arts degree at Brown University. Reach him at [email protected]