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District resident Charles Scott Elliott has come across some fairly strange items in the alley behind his two-story brick row house in Capitol Hill: car parts, furniture, beds, bed frames, a couple of couches, and “some unrecognizable stuff that smelled bizarre and I didn’t want to go near.…You name it, it’s been dumped there,” he says of the alley that services the 600 block of I and K Streets NE. But by far the most disturbing of his finds are the torched cars.
Elliott admits he’s seen only one “actually in-flames” car from his back window, but he knows of at least seven that have gone up since he bought his house in 2005. How? The cadavers sit in the alley for weeks before the city comes to pick them up, he says.
Once a self-described “poor Hill staffer,” Elliott says he moved into his house because Capitol Hill was one of the few neighborhoods he could afford. The neighbors are all “fantastic,” he writes in an e-mail.
“The only problem I ever had with [the neighborhood] was with the churches on Sunday’s when everyone and their brother from Maryland took every available parking space within four blocks. So great neighborhood and with H St up-and-coming and the bars etc.. down on 12th and H, life is good!”
Well, except for the occasional exploding car. In the early morning hours of April 15, Elliott wasn’t around, but a neighbor recounts what happened:
After completing his evening ritual—downing a highball in his living room while watching the news—the neighbor, who requested his name not be printed, went to bed. Around 6:30 a.m, he was jolted awake by a loud, familiar boom. “I thought: Holy shit. Another car fire.”
In the flickering orange glow, the neighbor dialed 911 and asked the dispatcher to send both firefighters and cops. He threw on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and went out to watch what used to be a sedan burn in what he has come to call “Car-B-Cue Alley.”
“The first couple of booms are the airbags,” he says, “and then the gas tank goes.” Smoke—”thick, black, and nasty”—fills the alley and any nearby homes with open windows. “TV sensationalizes it,” he says, “but it’s not too far off.”
Last Monday, the alley lit up again. D.C. Fire spokesman Alan Etter confirms Engine 10 was dispatched there at 5:23 a.m. because of a car blaze. “The fire marshal advises no investigator was called for,” Etter says.
Roger Sands, one of the few K Street residents around on a Monday afternoon, didn’t see the fire, but he noticed the burned vehicle being carted away. “It was an awesome sight,” says Sands, who adds that his garage has been seared by car fires twice. He contacted the police, he says, but nothing ever came of it.
Another resident, who asked to remain unidentified, says she, too, lost the aluminum siding of her remodeled garage to one of the alley fires. The woman, 65, has lived adjacent to the alley for 51 years and says vehicle fires have been a problem for the last seven. She couldn’t even begin to remember how many she’s seen. “One summer it was really bad,” she says. “They burned a car a week.”
But D.C. fire officials have scant records of car fires there. After numerous inquiries to the fire department, including Freedom of Information Act requests, the department confirmed only Monday’s fire, the one on April 15, and a third on Feb. 13, 2007.
A fire department source says there’s a good reason for the lack of records: Firefighters don’t want to wait around for the fire inspector to show up, so they chalk it up, instead, to a mechanical failure (which doesn’t require an inspection). If there’s no fire inspector checking things out, there’s no incident report filed.
Etter says he wouldn’t make that “as a general statement” and says that “investigators are very busy, but they respond to every fire they’re called to.” He also says that if a fire company neglected to call in inspectors when inspectors are needed, that would be “improper” and “the subject of corrective action.”
That’s not good enough for Elliott. “Basically,” he fumes, “the whole thing is a disgrace. It would be great if the police or city would finally listen and put in extra lights, more night patrols, and an actual camera in the alley. It might not stop it all, but it’d sure be a hell of a lot better than what we have now.” —-Rend Smith
BONUS: Video of Monday’s car fire in “Car-B-Cue Alley” shot by a source from this story (warning, loud, annoying car horn, so turn the sound down):