A Washington, D.C. affordable-housing facility playing home to 190 elderly residents dramatically burst into flames in September 2018. But while officials thought that they had accounted for all of the building’s tenants, they realized five days after the blaze that one unit hadn’t been evacuated when the fire had broken out.
In 2007 construction finished on the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments – touted as one of Washington, D.C.’s “most sought-after” living facilities of its kind. Residents could choose between one- and two-bedroom apartments, all of which were situated within easy reach of the city center.
And the building’s updated appearance was part of a greater plan to revitalize the neighborhood of Navy Yard in which the senior center stood. In the years that followed, furthermore, the public housing facility was well-maintained, according to redevelopers Urban Atlantic. In September 2018 Urban Atlantic president Vicki Davis told Fox 5 DC, for example, that the apartments had passed a recent inspection “with flying colors.”
Even so, residents of Arthur Capper Senior Apartments found themselves in the middle of an emergency in late September 2018, when a fire ignited in the building’s attic. Some would later say that they didn’t even hear any alarm bells ringing to warn them of the danger above.
Instead, concerned neighbors began beating on doors, alerting those inside that they needed to evacuate. And luckily for those living in the affordable-housing complex, some of the locals were also U.S. Marines.
The Marines had an outpost just 200 yards from the senior center, meaning some among their number were able to see the smoke and so quickly made their way over to help. A construction worker also alerted them that more people were inside the building. “And that’s when [we] decided, ‘We need to go get them,’” one Marine told CBS News in September 2018.
Gunnery Sergeant Matthew Cale also talked to the network, explaining, “I don’t think there was really any thought to [the rescue effort]. It was just saying, ‘We need to get these people out of here before anything serious happens.’ And the instincts just kicked in to go.”
After that, the Marines and the 100 or so firefighters who had made it to the scene began escorting the elderly from their apartments. Some seniors were stuck on the fourth floor and had trouble evacuating on their own, however – meaning the Marines had to get creative.
Captain Trey Gregory later told CBS News, “[There were] some paralyzed, some immobile people up there. We actually just picked people up as best we possibly could and then had the wheelchairs at the exit… or right outside the building after we carried them down four flights.” Seniors also made their way out of the building via ladder and on foot.
Fortunately, the firefighters and Marines were able to escort all of the building’s 190 residents from the fire and to safety – or so they had thought. You see, five days after the fire had begun, crews sent to assess the damage discovered something shocking.
The workers on site were there to examine how the facility was holding up post-blaze. As they went about their business, however, they heard something: a man’s voice shouting. They then tracked the sound to a second-floor apartment with its door jammed shut.
Ultimately, then, the employees realized that someone was on the other side of the door. According to the BBC, structural engineer Allyn Kilsheimer recalled, “When I said, ‘We’re coming to get you,’ [the man in the apartment] said, ‘I’m not going any place.’”
The man couldn’t leave because his door was stuck; he had also suffered an injury. His name was Raymond Holton, and the 74-year-old was a resident of Arthur Capper Senior Apartments. In other words, he’d been in his rental since the fire had broken out.
With that discovery, the on-site crew’s task changed from structural assessment to resident rescue. They subsequently pushed their way through the door to Holton’s apartment and came face-to-face with the only tenant left behind during the blaze.
But according to Inside Edition, the workers found Holton in “incredibly good shape” in spite of all that had happened. In fact, the senior even insisted that he’d walk out of the building by himself after having spent five days awaiting rescue.
The building crew then helped Holton move from the sofa to a kitchen chair as they awaited emergency services. And Holton eventually forewent his plan to walk on his own, instead allowing first responders to carry him from his apartment.
Of course, the discovery of a forgotten tenant may have given city officials pause. For one, Holton’s rescue had happened shortly after Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser had announced that every one of Arthur Capper’s residents had left the building.
So, the city had to figure out how Holton had slipped through the cracks; both firefighters and the building management had said that they had swept the place, after all. In response, Mayor Bowser explained that authorities would “re-check to assure that [all residents were] accounted for.”
Fortunately, though, Holton had survived his ordeal. He had even made his rescuers laugh with his good sense of humor in the middle of it all. And, in total, only a handful of Arthur Capper residents had been injured during the emergency; everyone had survived the fire too.
Furthermore, despite their displacement, everybody that had lived in the facility would “enter into temporary housing as quickly as possible,” Christopher Rodriguez, director of the city’s homeland security branch, told the press. And although many had lost both their home and their possessions – and there was no word on the salvageability of the building, either – Rodriguez promised, “Our plan is to make sure these residents are cared for.”