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Decrepit DC Water System Brings $8M Claim

WASHINGTON (CN) - An insurer says it had to pay more than $8 million in damages for what began as a small house fire because the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority's water lines are so leaky and decrepit they can't hold pressure for fire hoses. Firefighters could not get sufficient pressure and flow from a water main that is "at least 75 years old," and the fire destroyed the home of Peggy Cooper-Cafritz, American International Insurance says, suing as subrogee in Superior Court.

The fire began on Cafritz's porch on the evening of July 29, 2009, about a week after she complained to the Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) about low water pressure in her area.

Firefighters attacked the blaze from inside the home after it spread into the first floor. When the two units they exhausted their water supplies, they "attempted to continue their interior attack using the hoses connected to the two nearest fire hydrants to the home. However, WASA's water distribution system, which supplied those hydrants, failed to provide fire flow of adequate pressure and volume to contain and extinguish the fire at its area of origin," according to the complaint.

Firefighters had to evacuate the home and fight the fire from outside, but were still unable to "secure adequate fire flow."

A WASA representative arrived 45 minutes after the firefighters were dispatched and was unable to direct them to a sufficient hydrant, the insurer says. The Cafritz home allegedly suffered more than $8 million in damages.

The insurer adds that Cafritz paid her water bills on time.

"WASA delivers water to the hydrants on Chain Bridge Road closest to the Cafritz home, and to the home itself, through an 8-inch distribution main. The pipe is likely constructed of unlined cast iron and is at least 75 years old. Mains this old are subject to degradation caused by tuberculation, which substantially compromises their ability to deliver the volume and pressure required to suppress a fire," the complaint states.

The insurer claims that WASA had received numerous complaints about low water pressure in the area from customers, including Cafritz. It claims that a technician and supervisor came to the Cafritz home just days before the fire and were unable to repair the problem.

The technician told Cafritz that the main in her area "was delivering one-third of the expected water pressure," American says. It claims that "the technicians failed to take any action to increase the water pressure, advise Ms. Cafritz of the risk of this lack of fire flow, or advise the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department of the inadequacy of the Chain Bridge Road main to supply water with sufficient fire flow in the event of a fire."

The water company was aware of the defects in its system, the complaint states. It adds that at least twice since 2000, "WASA has been faulted for failing to provide sufficient water pressure and volume causing substantial damage to involved buildings."

American demands more than $8 million from WASA for breach of contract, breach of warranty, negligence and product liability.

It is represented by Edward Jaeger with White and Williams of Philadelphia.

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