Posted Tuesday, March 1, 12:50 p.m.
Updated 2:22 p.m.
Two elderly people were taken to GW Hospital and scores more were treated for smoke inhalation and other injuries after a large fire engulfed a floor of St. Mary’s Court Tuesday.
At 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, a man living on the senior center’s fifth floor dropped a cigarette and his clothes ignited. The fire spread to other parts of the floor, producing large flames that trapped several residents in their rooms.
At least 20 D.C. fire trucks and ambulances responded to the three-alarm blaze and commenced the evacuation of the building’s residents, many of whom were half-dressed and needed assistance getting down the stairs. University Police officers, other GW officials and Red Cross disaster relief members also responded to the building, located at 725 24th St., across from New Hall.
A 72-year-old man, believed to be the person who accidentally started the fire, was taken to the hospital for minor burns on his hands, fire department spokesman Alan Etter said. A 67-year-old woman was hospitalized for a twisted knee.
An additional 60 people, including a firefighter, were treated on scene for smoke inhalation and other minor injuries, Etter said.
Etter said parts of the building were reopened to residents around 2 p.m. Many of the residents whose rooms were damaged by the fire were relocated to the Marvin Center.
University officials provided residents with lunch in the Continental Ballroom of the Marvin Center and is in the process of finding available housing for displaced residents, UPD Chief Dolores Stafford said.
Some residents may be placed in City Hall or New Hall, said Robert Chernak, senior vice president of Student and Academic Support Services.
“We heard about the call, and we just wanted to help out,” said Chernak as he stood on G Street with President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and other senior officials Tuesday afternoon.
St. Mary’s Court has experienced several fires in the last year, several people familiar with the building said. The building has sprinklers in hallways but not inside rooms.
“Having a working sprinkler inside that apartment would have kept the fire in check,” Etter said, referring to the room where the blaze began.
Etter said responders’ “biggest challenge” was getting elderly residents out of the building quickly and assisting those with asthma.
“Just exposing them to smoke exacerbates their conduction,” he said.
Jordan Plieskatt, who works in Rice Hall and graduated from GW last year, was one of the first people to respond to the fire. After seeing smoke coming from the building, Plieskatt, a trained EMT, ran up to several of the building’s floor to start evacuating residents.
After encountering “thick, black smoke” on the fifth floor that made it impossible to breathe, Plieskatt went up to sixth floor and “went door-to-door banging on the doors, telling people to leave immediately.”
Maggee Dunn, 78, a fourth floor resident and vice president of the St. Mary’s Court residents’ association, “heard the fire alarm and did what we were supposed to do, which is put rags at the bottom of the door.”
“Then I looked out the window and saw the fire trucks, then they were
banging at the door taking us out,” she continued. “Some were not properly dressed, I saw one woman who lived on the fifth floor who I know being taken out in like a white sheet … I forgot to put my teeth in.”
From the building’s ground floor, Plieskatt said he saw firefighters breaking several windows to let the smoke escape from the building.
“You could visibly see people trapped in their rooms,” he said.
Plieskatt, who has been an EMT for six years, helped several residents down the building’s stairs. Several people were suffering from smoke inhalation, but none of the residents Plieskatt helped needed to be carried down the stairs.
Two months ago, a resident left food on the stove and triggered a similar evacuation, Dunn said. St. Mary’s Court provides subsidized housing and other services to elderly residents, most of whom have yearly incomes of less than $15,000. It receives funding from D.C. and the federal government.
-Nathan Brill contributed to this report.