August 8, 2009
Art Collection Burns, and Officials Offer Reasons
By IAN URBINA
WASHINGTON — Although water pressure in two city fire hydrants was less than 20 percent of what it should have been, city officials said Friday that that was not the reason firefighters could not save a home that contained one of the country’s largest private collections of African-American art.
When firefighters arrived on the scene, the lack of water pressure forced them to go five blocks to find a hydrant with sufficient pressure. Nearly 100 firefighters battled the blaze, but when they made it to the second floor of the home, the water pressure was still so low that they had to back out and attack the fire from the exterior.
The two hydrants first used by firefighters produced only 323 and 296 gallons per minute of water during subsequent testing, well short of the 1,643 gallons needed to battle a fire of that size, city officials said Friday.
But fire officials added, in a preliminary report on the fire, “While low water flow unquestionably impacted the time needed to put out the fire, it is not clear that higher water pressure would have saved the house.” In the last two years Washington has had a spate of fires that have leveled major landmarks, including the historic Eastern Market, the Georgetown Library and a large condominium in the city’s popular Adams Morgan neighborhood, raising questions about the preparedness of the city’s fire department and the local water authority.
Ms. Cafritz’s eight-bedroom home on Chain Bridge Road in Northwest Washington was a common site for political fund-raisers and soirées. For the last two decades, Ms. Cafritz also had amassed a collection of works by important artists, including Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, El Anatsui, Shinique Smith and Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian artist who will be the subject of a major exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art beginning in November.
The report sought to reassure city residents by pointing out that the Cafritz fire, whose cause is unknown, involved a unique set of circumstances and challenges.
The unusually large house, about 15,000 square feet, was mostly engulfed when firefighters arrived, and it was at the top of a steep hill, making water pressure weaker. The house was also relatively remote, making it impossible to pull water from multiple water mains as firefighters prefer to do, according to the report.
Mr. Fenty said the water main serving Ms. Cafritz’s neighborhood was too small to deliver enough water.
“Now, should the government have known that and made changes?” the mayor said. “That may be a criticism that has merit, but there are age issues in this system, there are topography issues on Chain Bridge Road, there are isolation issues on Chain Bridge Road, which makes this an exception.”
The City Council is expected to hold a hearing on the fire in mid-September.