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 momentarily trapped several residents in their rooms.
The fire and subsequent smoke and water damage displaced the fifth floor’s 15 residents. As of Wednesday night, seven residents were being housed in City Hall. The rest went to another senior citizens’ home or the residences of family members.
“We’ve always considered St. Mary’s Court residents seniors of GW and part of the GW community,” University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said in a press statement. “We are pleased to provide support in their time of need. I’m proud of GW’s response and display of community service.”
Margaret Pully, the center’s associate director, said it would be a minimum of a week before fifth floor residents could return to their homes.
“The air is pretty bad up there,” she said.
The center’s insurance will cover repairs. St. Mary’s overseers may consider banning smoking in the building in an attempt to avert further fires.
“The issue will be the smoking,” said Joe Howell, a member of the center’s board of directors who teaches an urban housing class at GW. “That will be a big issue … That has been a concern of the board for some years.”
On Tuesday, at least 20 D.C. fire trucks and ambulances responded to the 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.
“I was scared to death,” said Adriana Marian, who lives in room 506, a couple doors down from where the fire broke out. “I heard a man screaming ‘Help me! Help me!’ so I opened my door and black smoke poured into my room.”
An additional 60 people, including a firefighter, were treated on scene for smoke inhalation and other minor injuries, Etter said. The nine-story building has 140 units, almost all of them singles.
Most of the building was reopened to residents around 2 p.m. Tuesday. University
officials provided residents with lunch Tuesday in the Continental Ballroom of the Marvin Center.
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.
D.C. Fire Chief Adrian Thompson said his men did not evacuate everyone but instead did a “protect in place” in which some residents were told to stay in their rooms and close their doors. He estimated that 300 people were in the building at the time of the fire.
“Our primary goal was to keep people in place,” Thompson 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 get people out of 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, Brandon Butler and Abe Lubetkin contributed to this report.