Martin Crowetz was shampooing the rug in the lobby of the Cinema Follies theater when he first heard the pop and then saw the flames in a corner of the room.
Yesterday, Crowetz, 26, a maintenance man at the Southeast Washington theater, stood in the now-blackened lobby and for the first time described the frantic but futile efforts he and others made to control the flames, as patrons sat in a small theater on the second floor.
As he spoke, Crowetz walked through the ruined interior with a reporter and provided details about the movie theater and the tragic fire there Monday evening that resulted in eight persons being killed and six others injured.
"I just heard the explosion and saw fire" under a natural gas heating unit that was suspended from the ceiling near the entrance to the theater, Crowetz said.
He said he grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall and sprayed all its contents on the flames, but the fire persisted, Crowetz recalled. He ran outside to his car and took another extinguisher from the trunk. By that time, the door to the building was so hot. Crowetz said he had to cool it down with the extinguisher before he could open it and get back inside.
Again he emptied the contents of the extinguisher on the flames, but "by then they were shooting up the stairwell" from the lobby that led to the second floor theater.
Meanwhile, Bill Oates, identified as the Cinema Follies manager and a receptionist in the lobby, tried to help put the fire out, Crowetz remembered. They were "yelling for everyone to see if they could get it out," Crowetz said. They threw wet tablecloths on the fire, he said, but nothing helped.
Electrical boxes in the lobby were burned out by the flames and the telephones were out of order when someone tried to call for help, Corwetz said.
At that point, Oates left the theater, got into his car and drove a short distance to a nearby fire station for help, Crowetz said.
Apparently patrons in the theater on the second floor couldn't hear the commotion downstairs, Crowetz said. When the lights went out, he said, they probably thought the film was to begin.
There was an exit door in the theater near the screen that led to a roof of the building. But from the inside, the door is flush with the wall and is painted black, like the walls in the darkness. Crowetz speculated yesterday, the patrons at first may not have realized it was there.
There is a bolt-type lock on the inside of the door and Crowetz claimed that all the patrons had to do was push the bolt to the side to escape. However, Chief Harry H. Shaffer of the city's Fire prevention division said yesterday there is evidence that a padlock was attached to the door as well, and that the victims would have needed a key to get the door open.
Shaffer said the flames never reached the theater area, but the air was thick with smoke. Most of the victims were found in the orange-and-black theater seats. Shaffer said, and may have been overcome by the smoke before they realized what was happening.
Yesterday, an unidentified person came to the movie house at 37 L St. S.E. and hung a wreath of white roses and carnations on the sheet of wood that now covers the door to the cinema.
There were also flowers in a large room on the first floor of the theater yesterday, and silver trays on a long table covered with a white cloth - remnants of what was to have been the Cinema Follies' second anniversary celebration Monday night.
That was why, Crowetz said, he was shampooing the rug.