Free Consultations Available

888.711.5947

Anatomy of a Fire investigation: Georgetown Library Fire (April 30, 2007)

Two years ago, a fire at the Georgetown Library in Washington, D.C. destroyed historical documents and expensive artwork. The fire occurred while the building was being renovated. Library employees arriving at work the morning of the fire remember seeing fire in the middle of the roof and assumed that’s where the fire began. Later, the fire pattern led investigators to conclude that the “origin” of the fire was actually in the area of some second floor exterior windows.


Like many other repositories of historical materials and expensive paintings, the Georgetown Library chose not to have a fire suppression system such as sprinklers. The chief librarian said it was not uncommon for buildings holding delicate documents and art to forego sprinkler systems because the water from such systems causes more damage to the expensive materials than smoke does. In crowded public buildings, such as nightclubs, theaters and restaurants, fire suppression systems are essential to protect against death and injuries.
However, the library did have smoke detectors that were operable the morning of the fire. Because the building was unoccupied, though, the efficacy of any warnings from the smoke detectors depended upon how quickly the fire department responded to the alarm. Smoke detectors are critical warning devices for buildings that are occupied such as residential and public assembly buildings. They are needed to protect against loss of life and serious injury.
Because of the lack of sprinklers in the library itself, the responding firefighters had to rely on the city’s fire hydrants for the water needed to put out the fire. It turns out that precious minutes were wasted because the two closest hydrants were inoperable. Firefighters tried hooking hoses to those hydrants including one just across the street from the blaze, but were unable to draw water. They ended up using hydrants about two blocks from the burning library. The extra time for this distant hookup prevented a more efficient fire suppression. A later investigation report identified 53 hydrants in the city in need of repair or replacement. Some leaked; some had defective parts, some had no water.
After the delayed suppression of the fire due to inoperable fire hydrants, the investigators were able to enter the fire scene and begin their investigation. They noticed fire patterns along the exterior of the second floor consistent with origin of the fire in that area. As they began to collect evidence in the area of origin, they noticed charred electric heating guns and cans of flammable chemicals. Based upon this evidence, the fire investigators doubted the general contractors’ claims that no heating guns were being used to remove paint from the windows. The general contractor said wire brushes were being used.
The District of Columbia, owner of the library, sued the general contractor for its negligence in removing lead paint from the second floor windows with faulty heating guns in the presence of highly flammable materials.
During a typical fire investigation, investigators seek to identify the origin of the fire, and then its cause. After origin and cause are determined, the investigators then assign responsibility.
For example, responsibility for the substantial destruction of the Georgetown Library focused on the following:
Fire Hydrants
International Fire Code, App. C101-App. C105
NFPA 921
Smoke detectors
International Fire Code
International Residential Code for One and Two family dwellings
NFPA 921
Sprinkler systems
International Building Code
International Fire Code
International Residential Code for One and Two family dwellings
NFPA 921
Wiring
International Building Code
International Fire Code
National Electrical Code
NFPA 921
Electric heating devices
International Fire Code
International Building Code
Underwriters Laboratories Standard UL 499
Combustible materials
International Fire Code
NFPA 921
National Electrical Code
International Residential Code for One and Two family dwellings
Flammable chemicals
International Building Code

Properly investigating fire litigation claims is crucial. Be sure to hire an attorney who will take all of the necessary steps to ensure your case is properly investigated and all responsible parties are properly identified. I would be happy to discuss the details of your possible claim at a free initial consultation. Please contact me.

Categories