Update: As of May 30, police have charged four teenagers in the incident described below.
By ROSE BYRNE — Actually, a letter to my Hyattsville neighbors.
Did you know this happened on Hyattsville Day [April 27]?
As I sat on my Hamilton Street porch on Sunday afternoon with neighbors, the mood was silly. We laughed easily and enjoyed the spring day. A car driving down Hamilton Street, near the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission (WSSC) building entrance, made an unusual and sudden stop. The car parked, and two women frantically — yet tentatively — approached the glass entrance. They called to us, “Come over please! Come, call the police!”
As we headed over, three boys on their bikes rode towards the same part of the WSSC building. All three were young, perhaps 11 or 12. All are neighborhood kids who ride this path often, letting their bikes careen in sweeping curves.
The WSSC building’s original structure connects to the newer addition in a lobby with large glass windows. It was in this lobby that I could see a body hanging, swinging slightly, silhouetted by the light coming from both Gallatin and Hamilton Streets. I gasped and stumbled back, terrified.
The body was clothed in a fireman’s uniform. It was hard to make out; the glass was filthy. As the boys were circling on their bikes, police cars — sirens blasting — flew up Hamilton the wrong direction. The first officer to arrive assured us that the body was just a fire department dummy.
And it was. I didn’t believe him at first. I tried to assure the kids that it was. I know they didn’t believe me either. They were scared and brave, as each approached the scene separately.
The boys told us that the body/dummy was put there on Saturday [April 27], sometime between early afternoon when they rode to the carnival and 10 p.m. after the fireworks when they were returning home. “It was swinging,” one of them said quietly. The other two nodded slowly and seriously, looking down at the ground.
The boys said they told adults on Saturday night, but no one believed them.
These kids had a very different, very terrifying Hyattsville Day weekend then the rest of us. They witnessed a disturbingly realistic scene of a body hanging three feet above the floor in a creepy, abandoned and dilapidated building. They held this information among themselves for almost 24 hours. The image of a hanging body, evocative of a public lynching, haunting their minds.
Directly across the street from this entrance are four houses in a row, all with young children. Several of the kids were angling to get closer. Curious little kids: “Why did so many police come? There were four, five, then seven! Why are they still there? What are the firemen doing? Can we see?”
According to the fire department, the scene inside was sprayed with vulgar and disgusting graffiti, including social media hashtags. Indeed, the pictures of the hanging dummy were broadcast on social media — the vandals bragging of their prowess. There had been 67 responses so far that evening, many asking for directions to see the site in person.
Dear neighbors, I know the future of the WSSC is a contentious debate with strong opinions on both sides. But I urge you to consider the vulnerability of your neighbors that look at that wretched building day in and day out. It has been vacant and slowly dying for 28 years; expecting us to continue to wait more years for a better offer as the WSSC continues its inevitable decay is an extraordinary ask.
Rose Byrne has lived on Hamilton Street for 17 years. Her front porch is directly across from the WSSC building.