On the evening of September 28 (and/or possibly the early morning hours of September 29, 2020), the ceiling above the third floor atrium at DCPS’s Peabody early childhood campus collapsed. As it fell, the ceiling somehow interacted with a water line, causing water to flood the entire building from the third floor down to its basement. No one was hurt. A passerby noticed water pouring from the building some time later, notifying authorities.
Peabody is, at this moment, still unoccupied—and is currently undergoing demolition preparatory to restoring it to its prior state. The expected completion date of that work is sometime this summer.
Despite a catastrophic building failure that could have killed someone and that has rendered the building completely unusable for most of a year, that information above is all that I can report about this event with any degree of certainty, using information obtained by FOIA, in emails, and noted in public meetings.
Read on for the questions that remain—and for how DC parents, staff, and even council members fought to get even this much information.
Immediately after the ceiling collapse (see pictures here), an engineering firm was hired to report on it by DGS, the city agency in charge of DCPS buildings. In its report from October 1, along with a subsequent engineering report from October 29, the engineering firm attributed the ceiling collapse to hangers installed in the 1960s, when the ceiling was put in during a renovation. The hangers were, according to the reports, inappropriately sized.
That news was a bit slower to get to staff and families, as shown by emails produced via a parent’s FOIA request (which was for all emails and correspondence on the flood and damage assessments from September 28 through December 1).
On September 29, for instance, the school’s principal acknowledged to families that the building had experienced flooding and water damage.
On October 5, in anticipation of DCPS’s expected re-opening in November, the principal shared with families that there was “lack of information to date” about the building.
A few days later, on October 9, the principal gave families a basic outline of what had happened:
“The Department of General Services (DGS) has completed its immediate review of the incident and determined that a portion of the third-floor ceiling collapsed, compromising a water pipe that led to flooding on the 3rd floor and parts of the floors below. This initial report also concluded that although finishes sustained damage, it is unlikely that the flooding caused any deterioration of the main structural elements of the building.”
The principal noted that the building could not be used for DCPS’s anticipated reopening, slated for November 9. Instead, students would be in person at Watkins, the associated elementary campus for Peabody (both are part of the Capitol Hill Cluster School, with Peabody having preK and kindergarten and Watkins having 1st through 5th grades).
To be sure, this all is a bit personal for me:
Years ago, both my kids spent plenty of time on the 3rd floor of Peabody in preK and kindergarten. Heck, I spent plenty of time on the 3rd floor—and, more specifically, under the atrium ceiling that collapsed, where school events and celebrations were regularly held.
In fall 2020, as a neighbor rather than a parent at the school, I knew little enough of what had happened at Peabody except that something had occurred that had rendered it unusable.
Starting in mid-October, however, I noticed that the windows of the 2nd and 3rd floors of Peabody were open 24/7, rain or shine.
Then, on October 21, walking past Peabody, I noticed workers appearing to shovel debris from the floor of the cafeteria, in the school’s basement. A large metal rectangular trash container in the parking lot was filled with what looked like drywall, which was being taken out of the cafeteria via its door to the outside.
More striking than any of that was the smell: mold.
As I stood on the sidewalk, about 30 feet from that open door, the smell of mold was so strong that my eyes began to water.
Not long after, on November 2, a building inspector from Young & Associates (contracted by Zurich, the insurance company) visited Peabody to “investigate a claim of water damage.”
In a report dated November 3, the company noted that the ceiling collapsed because of inadequate support and that the collapse broke a sprinkler line, causing a flood—as “indicated by the Insured’s onsite representative” (presumably DGS).
Interestingly, none of the reports produced via FOIA—the two engineers’ reports from October as well as the Young report from November–noted much (or anything) about the 2013 renovation of Peabody.
That so-called “phase 1” renovation upgraded the school’s electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems as well as addressed cosmetic finishes. Recall that the idea behind phase 1 renovations was that more fulsome work would happen at some (unspecified) time in the future. (All DCPS schools are fully renovated in only one ward–Ward 3.)
Those reports obtained via FOIA also mentioned nothing about existing leakage in the building, and specifically the 3rd floor, prior to the ceiling collapse.
In the wake of Peabody’s most recent renovation work, however, there were reports of leaking in the building. To be fair, this was not entirely new. For instance, I knew of a leak in 2006 in one of the 3rd floor classrooms. That leak, attributed to poor roof drainage, caused plaster to fall. Four years later, in 2010, a similar problem occurred in the same classroom, with similar outcomes. The roof was apparently not replaced in the renovation.
Those three reports also mentioned nothing about
–the integrity of the sprinkler system
–its condition on September 28
–when it was installed
–by whom it was installed
–its proximity to the collapsed ceiling
–how the ceiling broke the pipe in its collapse
–any prior water or other damage to the 1966 ceiling
–any mold or its remediation
Also, none of the reports commented on something in picture #2 from the first engineering report, which is a discrete area of the collapsed ceiling that appears to be wet on the side facing up (i.e., the side not seen from below).
In fact, the FOIA production as it stands suggests more than a little mystery about that collapsed 1966 ceiling:
For one, photos of the 3rd floor atrium in the Young report do not show any part of the collapsed ceiling, which suggests it had been removed by the time of Young’s inspection on November 2.
For another, only incomplete drawings exist of the 1966 renovation, as noted in the 10/1 engineering report. That report also noted that “no notes are mentioned in the existing drawings as to how the ceiling should be supported. It is assumed this was left to the contractor’s discretion.”
While the Young 11/3 inspection report noted that subrogation could exist “due to undersizing of . . . hangers installed as part of the 1966 renovation causing the collapse,” it concluded that this would require more investigation “to determine the responsible party” from 1966.
The FOIA production also produced a system check of the fire protection system in August 2020, which appeared to show that it was in good working order.
But well before the November 3 Young report, and before the (presumably final) engineering report on October 29, there was communication from the DC office of risk management (ORM) to DGS.
In an email dated October 8 about a possible subrogation claim (see p. 14 of the email production here), ORM asked a number of pointed questions, including when DGS expected the building to be stabilized. ORM also asked the following:
“did the ceiling fall as a result of water build up”
“what caused the “flood””
“why didn’t the sprinklers automatically notify the fire department” and
“did the ceiling just fall and trigger the sprinklers?”
I could not find clear answers to any of those questions in the materials produced thus far via FOIA or available publicly.
That October 8 ORM email also mentioned that the insurer, Zurich, was going to inspect Peabody the next day (10/9) but had to cancel. There was nothing in the FOIA production I found to show when Zurich actually did its inspection—nor when the collapsed ceiling was removed (presumably sometime between October 1 and November 2).
That said, the ORM October 8 email did ask for a list of major projects of the 2013 renovation contractor, Keystone, with a suggestion that that contractor could be held responsible in some way.
Keystone is owned and operated by Carlos Perdomo, a big donor to Mayor Bowser and her Ward 4 political allies Adrian Fenty and Brandon Todd.
Keystone has a number of contracts with DC, amounting to millions. Although I could not see the actual contracts themselves in the DC contracts database, it shows many payments for work at schools and rec centers.
About the time that Keystone worked on Peabody’s renovation, it was in the news for issues with another city job.
So, while messaging from DCPS publicly has consistently noted that the ceiling collapsed (which in the engineering reports was attributed to insufficient supports installed in 1966) and that collapse had something to do with a water line, leading to flooding of the building, many of the publicly released documents dated from September 29 on make reference to a possible subrogation claim against the school’s 2013 contractor (albeit with much of the information blacked out).
In fact, this possible subrogation suggests a different scenario entirely from what the engineering reports outline: that work performed at Peabody in its most recent renovation caused something to happen (water leakage? another problem?) that possibly contributed to the ceiling collapse and/or water flowing from the affected pipe(s).
Taken with the lack of information in publicly available documents on who determined that prior damage (water or something else) to the 1966 ceiling had nothing to do with its collapse, this suggests that public communications on this subject have been incomplete at best—and purposefully misrepresentative at worst.
Not surprisingly, parents and staff have been concerned.
Within weeks of the event, not getting any good answers from DCPS, parents began directing their questions to council members—who then tried themselves to obtain answers.
It is unclear whether they obtained any.
On December 3, for instance, council member for the ward, Charles Allen, wrote to DGS and the chancellor, noting that “teachers are desperate to access their classrooms to remove personal items and instructional materials, but are being told that the building has not been stabilized and they cannot enter.” He asked to know when they could go inside and for an update on damages and repairs as well as a timeline for a return to operations.
A few days after he sent that email, I stood outside Peabody. In the basement rooms I could look into, I saw water damage, bare walls where drywall had been removed, hanging wires, and sleep mats and personal belongings of children piled on tables. Above the basement, on the upper floors, I could see windows were opened, and light fixtures (that were on!) hanging downward, as in the pictures taken in the preceding months.
At about the same time, DCPS had committed to getting the building ready by fall 2021. For instance, in an email to parents on December 7, the director of DGS noted that “ORM will determine what items can be removed from the facility due to its state. The focus of DGS, both Facilities Maintenance Division (FMD) and Capital Construction Division (CCD) is to restore the facility to its original state prior to September’s incident. Presently, FMD is working through the final pieces of remediation to stabilize the building with the intent to complete this work by early January. Once the building is stabilized, CCD will be able to begin its work to fully restore the building for a reopening. The agency’s goal is to reopen the building for School Year 2021-2022, contingent on the building conditions and supply chain availability due to COVID-19.”
Indeed, on p. 63 of the FOIA email production, a November 30 requisition request for restoration services is followed by an (undated) memo from DGS that cites Peabody’s completion slated for October 30, 2021. In meetings and materials since then, DCPS has said the work will be completed in August, in time for school re-opening.
On December 31, parents sent a letter to DCPS, demanding a school improvement team (SIT) be constituted so that formal engagement, as well as information and a timeline, could get underway.
On January 11, 2021, the Cluster School PTA met with DCPS officials about Peabody. The presentation DCPS gave noted that the ceiling collapsed and a “burst pipe” caused the building to sustain water damage. In the video chat, DCPS also noted that “the full explanation of the cause is still under investigation.” At that meeting, Peabody’s librarian noted that $4000 of books had been on Peabody’s first floor and wanted to know what had happened to them. (Thankfully, the librarian has since confirmed that none were damaged, and all were removed to Watkins.)
Fascinatingly, a few hours before that January 11 meeting, DGS or DCPS put brown paper over all the windows of Peabody—presumably so no one could look in like I had the month before.
In the meantime, a SIT team formed, with its first public meeting on February 17, which as far as I could see yielded no new answers to existing questions. Another SIT meeting is slated for March 24. (See here for information around all official SIT meetings.)
Between the January and February meetings DCPS held about Peabody, I took this picture of one of several large trash containers in the parking lot and play area, showing what appears to be belongings from the building being thrown out.
Those large rectangular trash containers have been in the Peabody parking lot by my observation since October, with a steady tide of materials wrapped in plastic bags dumped in them. At first, after the initial demolition of the cafeteria that I observed in October, the trashed materials appeared to be belongings and school supplies, like what is in the picture above.
More recently, the trashed materials have appeared to be actual building materials, which is in line with the demolition permitting that DGS said it had applied for. All have been in plastic bags.
It remains unclear when, if ever, the building was stabilized.
For instance, in its own notes on the January 11 meeting, DCPS said that “the building was stabilized in the days following the event.” But the December 7 email from DGS to Peabody parents noted that the stabilization had not yet occurred.
While city officials at the February meeting (for which no notes have been posted as of the time of this blog post) referenced the insurance company wrapping up its own investigation sometime in mid-March, they did not say whether the results would be made public nor anything about subrogation claims against the 2013 renovation contractor.
Was any part of the Peabody sprinkler system affected in/by the 2013 renovation?
Why does neither engineering report nor the Young report make any mention of water except as a by the way?
Who ruled out that prior damage to the 1966 ceiling had nothing to do with the ceiling collapse—and how did they make that determination?
What records are there of water leaks for Peabody’s 3rd floor?
Why is there nothing about the integrity of the fire suppression system in any of these reports, even though a report about it was produced in response to a FOIA request on the Peabody event?
Why is there nothing from the insurance company Zurich in the documents obtained via FOIA?
How have efforts to inspect the school and renovate it since 1966 missed the structural integrity of the supports for the 3rd floor atrium ceiling?
Has Peabody been stabilized? If so, when?
Are there any answers to these questions: “did the ceiling fall as a result of water build up” and “why didn’t the sprinklers automatically notify the fire department”?
Is the 8/18/20 report on the condition of the school’s safety system produced via FOIA the last report on it before the ceiling collapse?
What accounted for a 2-month delay–until November 30–in getting out a work order on restoring Peabody, given that DGS in another (undated) document of the FOIA production (p. 67) says “time is of the essence”?
Why are there possible subrogation claims for Keystone mentioned in the FOIA production—but nothing about its work in 2013?
What work did Keystone do then that is now the possible target of such claims?