WASHINGTON — The innocence of a child. The hope of an immigrant.
Nine-year-old Yafet Solomen and 40-year-old Fitsum Kebede lost their lives during a fire inside 708 Kennedy Street, NW. The building was formerly a pharmacy before being transformed into an unlicensed boarding house.
Ninety-five pictures WUSA9 obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the 41 housing code violations inside. An inspection report shows 15 crowded rooms separated by plywood, metal doors, iron gates, jerry-rigged wiring and extension cords snaked from room to room. No working smoke detectors were found. An auditor said when the fire broke out in August 2019, the young boy and man had nowhere to run.
For the first time, lawyers representing the victims are speaking about the wrongful death suit filed against the city and 10 District employees.
Attorney Peter Grenier represents the family of the 9-year-old boy.
“He had thermal burns in his upper airway. He breathed in such hot air, that it deprived him of his ability to breathe,” said Attorney Grenier. “It was so avoidable. I mean, just, it's disgusting to even think about if anyone had done maybe half their job or a quarter of their job then this would not have happened.”
Attorney Jerry Spitz represents the estate of Kebede - a father himself.
“He actually had to crawl to get into his rent space which was about 8 ½’ by 5’,” described Attorney Spitz. “No windows, lowered ceiling… It just was a little hole. For something like this to happen, even with the knowledge that D.C. had with the actions of the landlord himself, it’s as egregious and outrageous as it can get.”
But WUSA9 has learned the District says it’s not responsible for the tragedy, despite an auditor’s findings.
According to the October 2019 report, a D.C. police officer noticed the unsafe conditions inside the home back in March, 5 months before the fire. The officer sent 22 emails to D.C. Fire and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. In May of that year, DCRA finally sent an investigator to the house. However, Steve Allen said after three visits he could not get in. His supervisors suspended the case and closed it just weeks before the deadly fire.
WUSA9 spoke to Investigator Allen back in November 2020:
Delia Gonçalves: “For people who say you should have done more, how do you respond?”
Steve Allen: “Well, what do they mean more?”
Delia Gonçalves: “More than leaving your card and walking away.”
Steve Allen: “I did this 3 times. I’m not an inspector…I can’t kick the door in!”
Allen told WUSA9 DCRA should have sent an inspector who is trained to identify the violations inside. Allen said as an investigator he was simply assigned to check on the building’s permit.
“Mr. Allen represented himself, in the reporting that you did, that he was not properly trained in housing code violations,” said Attorney Spitz. “Okay. So, I think the fact speaks for itself, certainly, they (DCRA) should have sent somebody out there. I believe they’re obligated to send somebody out there in pursuant to their rules, regulations and procedures, to, in fact, check to see if there are housing code violations.”
“We believe that there is equal culpability with the District of Columbia because they had obligations,” added Attorney Grenier, “There's a reason why these laws exist, a reason why these regulations exist.”
WUSA9 has learned D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed a motion to dismiss the wrongful death and civil rights claims against the city and its employees arguing the only person responsible is the landlord, James Walker.
In court documents Racine wrote:
“The District enforces building and fire safety provisions for the benefit of the entire public…and it does not owe a duty to any specific individual, including Kebede and Solomen.”
Racine is tying his legal argument to something called the Public Duty Doctrine. It was ratified by the D.C. Council to cover “claims against the District for the actions of contractors and their employees.”
WUSA9 contacted the Attorney General’s office and a spokesperson replied with this statement:
"The Office of the Attorney General routinely defends the District when it is sued, and we will not comment further on ongoing litigation. Our office also has a long history of standing up for tenants and working to protect them from dangerous and unlawful housing conditions, including following the Kennedy Street fire.”
“We also have something in D.C. called Joint Several Liability,” explained Attorney Grenier. “If you were a proximate cause of the alleged injuries, or in this case the death, then you're held equally responsible, no matter what your degree of blame or fault is.”
Attorney Grenier said the Public Duty Doctrine does not apply if you can argue a ‘special relationship’ was established. He argues the fact that the D.C. police officer raised the alarm five months prior to the fire, DCRA sent investigator Allen only to close the case later proves the city was aware of the danger, had an obligation to keep people safe yet failed to do so.
The lawyers are seeking a combined $300 Million from the landlord and DC.
“When you make it cheaper for them to retrain, bring in consultants change policies, then it is to compensate or to pay victims of horrific incidents, such as what little Yafet suffered, that's when you get their attention,” said Attorney Grenier.
The landlord, James Walker, was indicted for second-degree murder. He is scheduled to head to court for a status hearing on February 18, 2022. Investigator Allen was placed on administrative leave then fired. He is suing DCRA to get his job back.