Fire sets 23rd Street ablaze

A fire triggered by a gas line rupture on 23rd Street forced the evacuation of the GW Hospital and three University residence halls late Tuesday morning, bringing Foggy Bottom to a standstill. No serious injuries were reported.

City officials said workers demolishing the former GW hospital building hit the gas line at 10:30 a.m. Officials said they are still investigating to determine what actions to take against Sigal Construction Corp., the University’s construction company.

The gas leak led Metropolitan Police and the D.C. Fire Department to cordon off all thoroughfares leading into Washington Circle and evacuate GW Hospital and four other GW facilities for two hours. The Foggy Bottom Metro station was also shut down.

GW implemented its emergency plan, positioning University Police vehicles at most campus intersections and helping city officials direct traffic. City, JBKO and Munson hall residents were all evacuated, as were students and staff in Ross Hall.

About 120 hospital patients, some in nightgowns with IVs attached to them and others lying supine on gurneys, were wheeled to the Smith Center, where a temporary triage center was set up.

At 10:30 a.m., the D.C. Fire Department was called to the intersection of 23rd Street and Washington Circle for a suspected gas leak, said Alan Etter, the department’s spokesman.

A few minutes later, an unidentified male whose black Dodge Avenger had apparently stalled in the northbound lane of 23rd Street attempted to restart his car, producing a conflagration with 20-foot high flames. The man sustained minor burns to his hands and side.

“I looked outside and saw this big explosion – just a giant boom,” said Fred Hayes, a local businessman who was in the emergency room at the time. “The street just exploded in flames.”

With gas fueling the fire, it took 80 firefighters and emergency service personnel about 40 minutes to extinguish the flames, said Lt. Brendan Burke of the D.C. Fire Department. After Washington Gas shut off the gas valves, the fire was quickly extinguished.

Burke said portable ventilation systems dispersed the gas near the demolition site and that checks conducted in surrounding buildings did not find any traces of gas. At 1:10 p.m., University facilities and the Metro stop reopened.

University officials declined to discuss the city’s investigation of the rupture. Several calls placed to the Wrecking Corporation of America, which is overseeing demolition of the hospital, went unanswered.

The demolition has been halted until the investigation is completed, said Bob Ludwig, interim director of Media Relations.

Joan Hairston, a media specialist for Washington Gas, said while the line under the old hospital was capped and shut off, some residual gas was still present in the pipes.

“Whether a line is active or abandoned, we encourage construction workers … to treat gas lines as if there’s gas in the pipe,” said Hairston, who declined to comment on the investigation.

An insurance adjuster investigating the incident said construction workers had been ignoring markings in the ground that serve as indicators for gas lines.

“The fact that it happened kind of suggests that they screwed up,” said the investigator, who requested anonymity.

The evacuation of the hospital sent worried family and friends scurrying to the site to find out about their loved ones. Keely Cooke, a District resident, said she was told her husband – recovering after head surgery in the hospital’s intensive care unit – stayed in his bed during the evacuation.

“I called up to the ICU board, and the nurses were kind enough to tell me he was stable and not to worry,” she said .

John Williams, University provost and director of Health Affairs, said the evacuation of more than 700 people from the hospital was as “calm as you can imagine.”

He said half the hospital, including the emergency room, was evacuated.

“They told everyone to evacuate, and when we came out the door there were these heavy fumes everywhere and we saw this car on fire,” said Gloria Hammond, who works in the hospital’s pathology department. “The smell started to make you lightheaded and all.”

Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, said the evacuation was “relatively smooth” but noted that a lack of communication among city officials caused confusion in the evacuation’s aftermath.

Chernak said confusion between the D.C. Fire Department and MPD led University officials to tell students to go back into City Hall before MPD was notified that an inspection found no gas in the building.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re dealing with one voice,” he said.

Etter said he “wasn’t aware” of any confusion.

Chernak said there were some issues GW will have to “get on top of,” such as finding alternative stops in advance for the Mount Vernon Shuttle. With MPD closing off 23rd Street, the shuttle stop was moved from 23rd and H streets to 22nd and F streets, causing confusion for students.

He said UPD and the EMeRG were able to treat a student who suffered a seizure on the Health and Wellness Center’s second floor despite all of the closures and evacuations elsewhere.

“We were able to respond effectively to an unrelated situation,” Chernak said, “which I was pleased to see.”

– Zach Ahmad and Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.

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