- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2020

None of the D.C. agencies or their personnel who failed to prevent a fatal fire in a cramped, illegal Northwest residence in August has faced any significant consequences or punishment, even as murder charges have been issued in the incident.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which is responsible for inspecting buildings and enforcing safety codes, directed questions about the Aug. 18 fire at 708 Kennedy St. NW to the mayor’s office.

The mayor’s office did not respond to request for comment about what, if any, penalties the agencies will face.

Douglas Buchanan, chief communications officer for Fire and Emergency Management Services, said that two FEMS personnel were disciplined internally, adding that one has since retired and the other has returned to full duty.

Last month, the D.C. Council held a hearing to consider legislation that would divide DCRA’s responsibilities between two agencies as a legislative response to the Kennedy Street fire, which killed Yafet Solomon, 9, and Fitsum Kebede, 40.

“There is no formal action that the council can take,” Lindsey Walton, spokeswoman for council Chairman Phil Mendelson, said Thursday. “The oversight, the hearing, the push to break up DCRA — those are all things the council hopes will push the agency in a direction that is better for all District residents.”

A D.C. grand jury this week indicted the owner of the Kennedy Street property on murder and manslaughter charges.

James Walker, 61, was charged with two counts of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

The Office of the D.C. Attorney General also filed 41 charges against Mr. Walker for allegedly violating provisions of city codes such as failing to install smoke alarms and obtain a certificate of occupancy, among others. The Washington Post first reported the charges.

After the Kennedy Street fire, city officials noted a host of lapses by agencies that had allowed the blaze to occur.

Last February, a Metropolitan Police officer who responded to a noise complaint at the property filed a report saying the building lacked exit signs and smoke detectors, and had untagged fire extinguishers and too many makeshift doors that would impede escape from a fire. A DCRA business license regulator visited the building two months later but did not go inside.

The public incident report said the property was licensed to be a pharmacy and an office space, but it was being used as a rental residential property.

“Collectively, our government failed,” council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, said during a November hearing on DCRA’s lapses. “The outcome of the fire at 708 Kennedy Street represents multiple failures of multiple individuals, of multiple agencies within the District government.”

Ernest Chapprah, the director of DCRA since February, told the council in November that the lapses in action that allowed for the fire were inexcusable and he since made changes to improve the processes of the agency that has long been criticized for its inefficiency.

Two DCRA employees reportedly were placed on leave, but it was unclear whether that leave was paid or unpaid.

Meanwhile, FEMS has since changed its protocol to respond to serious safety violations like it were a 911 call, Mr. Buchanan said Thursday.

He directed questions about any discipline FEMS personnel faced to the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Justice, which did not respond to request for comment.

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