Yohannes Haileyesus, 27, of Ethiopia stood on the flatened door of his apartment at 3145 Mount Pleasant St. NW yesterday and gazed at the black, frozen mess of charred and blistered timbers that covered his furniture.
He looked up and saw the sky. The roof had caved in on top of his belongings.
"Everything is gone," he said. "Demolition. I can pick up nothing. It is all icy and burned . . . This is my couch bed. My TV and stereo is down there." He pointed at what appeared to be rubble.
Haileyesus was one of about 200 residents routed from the four-story belge brick building Tuesday night when fire ripped through the fourth floor of the north wing, causing an estimated $300,000 in damage.
While no one was injured, all residents in the 90-unit building were evacuated and left temporarily homeless. About 15 apartments were burned out and several others damaged by water and smoke, but even those residents with undamaged apartments could not return because all power was turned off in the building.
Later yesterday, D.C. Fire Department officials were still stifting through the debris, looking for clues to the cause of the blaze and would term it only as "suspicious in origin."
Hampered by subfreezing temperatures, an estimated 110 firemen fought the blaze for more than three hours.
"We have 10 tons of frozen wood there," said Fire Department Insp. Murdo MacLeay. "It's one big ice job since the roof's gone."
Two other serious fires yesterday, both in Prince George's County, left another 62 families homeless and caused minor injuries to six persons including four fire fighters.
An early morning blaze caused an estimated $350,000 damage to the Potomac Heights Apartments at 906 Palmer Rd. in Oxon Hill.
The second fire occurred at the Kennedy Woods Garden Apartments at 6834 Walker Mill Rd. in District Heights. The three alarm blaze spread to adjacent buildings on both sides of the apartment complex, causing an estimated $375,000 in damage.
Officials of the Prince George's County chapter of the American Red Cross said late yesterday that most of the residents displaced by the fires had found shelter with friends and relatives, but some victims of the District Heights blaze were still seeking emergency housing.
At the Mount Pleasant Street fire in the city, the Red Cross set up a disaster center in a nearby building. The fire victims, many of them young Latinos, Caribbeans and Africans, poured into the center where they were given coffee, doughnuts and vouchers to purchase food and clothing.
Ted Cross workers also helped them find temporary shelter, relying heavily on the offers of churches and private families in the area.
Bobby Baiines, director of the Red Cross effort, said their problems were complicated by the inauguration. "The hotels we normally use are booked up for the inaugural," he said.
D.C. government officials said city agencies also had no emergency housing available. During the night, Mayor Walter E. Washington came to the scene of the fire for about an hour and helped direct victims to nearby Barney Community Center to get out of the cold.
City Councilman David A. Clarke, who represents ward one embracing the Mount Pleasant area, also came to the scene and helped tenants find housing.
Baines said numerous neighborhood residents volunteered to house victims in their homes temporarily. He carried two lengthy lists of names of volunteers who had called the disaster center.
"This community has been really great," he said.
Workers from the Florence Crittenton Bazaar brought boxes of clothes to the disaster center.
Johnny Lewis, of 1310 17th St. NW, heard about the fire, came to the center and gave Baines $3 and a box of clothes.
Some victims of the fire returned during the day to see what they could recover from their apartments.
Samuel James, a Nigerian student carried out his books wrapped in a bedspread.
"I really only care about my books," he said. He had found no place to sleep last night.
Other tenants like Patricia Smith returned to pack suitcases with salvagable belongings. William Dixon returned to get his orange sleeping bag. Some Latino women carried out their belongings in bundles on top of their heads.
Some like Dixon had spent the niht with relatives or friends. Resident manager Roman Escarfullet, of the Dominican Republic, slept on the floor at the Barney Community Center.
When the fire erupted Marina Sandoval, of Guatamala, ran out in her pajamas, as did Lucy Palmer, who was still wearing them as she shopped for other clothes yesterday at the Florence Crittenton Bazaar located across the street from the apartment building.
Several tenants like Eulalee White, of Jamaica, never made it into their apartments last night because they were just returning from work when the fire started.
"The bus stopped at the park and I saw the fire," she recalled yesterday.