The man, who lived alone on Webster Street in the District’s Petworth neighborhood, completed his morning routine of collecting discarded cans and dumping them into the bed of his new, white Ford F-150 pickup truck.
Then he told neighbors he had some Thanksgiving cooking to do.
“He said he was going inside to fix his turkey,” D.C. Deputy Fire Chief Edward Pearson said. “That’s the last time anyone saw him.”
Then, about 11 a.m. Wednesday, neighbors saw flames shooting from the first-floor windows of the red-brick rowhouse in the 300 block of Webster Street NW, just off New Hampshire Avenue and a few blocks from Grant Circle.
Firefighters later found the man dead in his living room, buried under a charred couch and a mountain of debris that officials said he had been collecting and storing for years.
Authorities did not release the man’s identity Wednesday, saying they had not reached relatives.
Pearson said firefighters had a difficult time getting through furniture and other items stacked floor to ceiling in the 1,200-square-foot rowhouse.
Pearson said firefighters did not find the man’s body until the flames were out and crews began removing debris.
Investigators had not determined the cause of the fire, and they did not know whether the dead man’s cooking sparked the blaze, Pearson said.
Pearson said the inside of the house was so badly burned that officials did not know whether he was cooking at the time.
Wednesday’s fire fatality was the seventh in the District this year, one more than in all of last year.
Twelve people died in fires in 2010, down from 19 in 2009.
Cynthia Johnson, 63, a next-door neighbor, said the man and his wife, who died in 2000, were living on Webster Street when she moved there in 1985.
He was already retired by then.
After his wife died, Johnson said, the man spent his mornings driving around, picking up cans. He would seek out day-old bread, sweet potatoes and vegetables from shelters or stores and distribute them up and down Webster Street.
Then he would disappear into the basement of his house. In nearly three decades, Johnson said, she had never been inside.
“He was nice, but he didn’t talk much,” Johnson said. “And once he went into his house, that’s where he stayed.”
She said that the couple had no children but that a cousin from North Carolina drove up and took him to visit relatives for Thanksgiving.
He would usually be gone two weeks. “We were surprised he was still here,” Johnson said.