The death toll rose to eight yesterday in Monday's fire in a Southeast Washington theater for homosexuals. Fire officials continued to investigate possible causes of the blaze, and they complained that the city's fire and building regulations are not strict enough to prevent a repetition elsewhere.
"The regulations aren't good enough," said Chief H. H. Shaffer of the fire department's fire prevention division. "I personally think that any place where people gather for whatever reasons should have a second way out other than the way you came in."
Shaffer said that the Cinema Follies, 37 L St. SE appeared to be in compliance with city fire and building regulations at the time of the fire Monday evening. The regulations require that every "assembly room" designed to hold fewer than 74 persons must have one door with exit lights above it, he said.
The Cinema Follies, located on the second floor of a cinderblock building, met those reqirements when it was formally inspected by fire officials in June, 1976, and in the spring of this year when firemen from a nearby station made an informal inspection, according to fire officials.
Yesterday the building had the grim burnea-out appearance appropriate to a death trap The only open exit - the one required by law - was the front door. It was from this door that wooden stairs led up a narrow passage to the club upstairs, and it was up this passageway that the lethal fire roared.
Upstairs about 15 people sat in a small, darkened theater watching homosexual movies, according to the account officials are putting together. As the heat and smoke rushed up the passageway, they began looking for a way out - orderly at first, then screaming and collapsing. There was no way out.
There was a door upstairs leading outside onto a roof, but for some reason that fire officials are still trying to determine, it could not be opened. There was a window, too, but officials said it was behind a heavy wall rug and was barred.
Washington's gay community reacted with shock and concern yesterday to the incident, their anguish frequently increased by the reluctance of city and hospital officials to release the names of the dead and injured for fear of possible lawsuits in an area still as sensitive as homosexuality.
"We give thanks for our community of brothers and sisters who have been working through the night, for the love that has been shown throughout our community." intoned Allen Grooms of Washington's Metropolitan Church in a small prayer service for the dead and injured yesterday.
Grooms said the church is "ecumenical with a special outreach to the gay community" and will take a lead role in raising funds to aid the injured and informing a gay committee that will with the help of the fire department periodically visit gay establishments to check that a similar blaze does not occur.
Firemen in the vicinity of the Cinema Follies located in an area of warehouses and parking lots about half a mile south of the U.S. Capitol, said there are many other similar gay establishment in the area - many of them with the potential for a similar fire.
The Rev. Larry Uhrig, of the church, said that the church would accept for burial the bodies of fire victims who are either without relatives or rejected by them.
Police last night identified two of the eight dead persons as James C. Johnson, 28, of 3200 Curtis Dr., Marlow Heights and Edgar C. Pratt, 42. of 9441 Wonder Way, Columbia, Md.
Police would not release the names of four other dead persons pending notification of next of kin. and the bodies of two others were still in hospitals last night. One of the latter, police said, was dead, but was on a machine to preserve his kidneys for medical use. The second was being kept technically alive on a heart machine, but is considered dead, police said.
The two dead persons still in hospitals also are unidentified.
Of the six injured persons still hospitalized last night, only one was in critical condition, according to hospital spokesmen. Although hospitals customarily release the names of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to the press, they did not do so in this case.
Autopsies on six of the dead at the D.C. morgue showed all died from asphyxia due to carbon monoxide poison and smoke inhalation, according to Dr. James L. Luke, the D.C. medical examiner. None of the victims was burned, he said.
One of the injury victims was not a patron of the theater but was fireman Gerald Moye, assigned to Engine Co. 7, located only a few blocks from the theater across South Capitol Street Moye, who was said by his fellow firefighters to have led the "attack" up the flaming stairs at the [WORD ILLEGIBLE]told this story from his hospital bed yesterday of how his company saw the blaze even before an alarm was sounded.
"I was outside getting ready to take down the flag and I happened to see some black smoke coming out from across South Capitol Street," said Moye. "I thought it was dumpster at first and I went to notify the sergeant . . .
Apparatus from Engine 7 rolled immediately.
"As we pulled up, we were met by fire at the front door. When we went in the fire was all downstairs and we had to knock the fire down before we could get upstairs . . . We went up the steps knocking out fire as we went up. As we got to the top of the steps there was a window there, and the window's what we used to get the victims out to the roof of the second floor landing.
"I guess we got six or seven people out that window," said Moye . . . "As we'd get the victims out the window, the firemen were doing CPR on them on the roof then lowering them to the ground. The smoke "was real think: it was just pitch black," in was jet black. So we were just feeling our way around and as you'd crawl up on somebody, you'd just try to get them out of the building as quickly as possible."
Moye is listed in good condition suffering from smoke inhalation at Washington Hospital Center.
His fellow firefighters from Engine 7 said they got to the fire within minutes and had it out in record time. If that had not been the case, they speculated everyone inside would have died.
Inside, the scene was nightmare, Uhrig, who spent much of yesterday doing from hospital to hospital.[WORD ILLEGIBLE] visit victims of the fire, quoted one victim who said he claimed to the door that led outside, hoping to open it.
"He pulled on the large yellow padlock there," said Uhrig, "and he said that he realized that it was not going to give when he gave it a pull. He said that he realized that this would be a terrible way to die, and the next think he remembered he was walking up in the hospital."
Chief Shaffer said he is investigating the "consistent claim" from several people that the second-floor door was locked.
"One of my own fire investigators said he saw a padlock on that door," said Shaffer, ". . . But there is no physical way to hand a padlock on it." He said that no padlock has been found, but that such a padlock may have been lost as firemen crashed through the door from the outside while Moye and the others were fighting their way up the stairs.
At least one victim recalled how he "held that lock in my hand - it was heavy brass or else a brass-colored padlock. It was the type you would put a key in from the bottom to open it. When I held that lock in my hand I was very angry. I cannot explain the rage that I felt at that moment."
Most theaters have exit doors that open by pushing a bar on the inside, but that are not operable from the outside in order to keep out intruders. According to Chief Shaffer, fire regulations did not apply to that second-floor door since it was not considered, legally, an exit from the building.