It was a year later to the day, but one grim reminder of the tragedy remained: the charred and blackened cinder block above the first-floor doorway.
In front of this backdrop yesterday at the old Cinema Follies club at 37 L St. SE, a memorial service was held for nine men who died after a fire rushed through the building, whose second floor housed a private club for homosexuals.
"We are here today to remember a very serious event, a time of tragedy," said the Rev. Larry Uhrig of the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, who conducted a brief ceremony before a dozen somber on lookers.
"But there is truth and hope on this day, found in the facts that we have a community to remember our dead, to bury our dead and give solace to our grieving families. It is in this hope that we go forth," Uhrig said.
He read from a book of common prayer, gave a brief benediction and then wept as he placed a wreath of white and red carnations at the doorway.
Standing quietly across the street, in a plain white trench coat and horned-rim glasses, was a young woman who came to the service to remember a close friend, Sean, who died in the fire.
"We were freshmen together in college in North Carolina," she said with tears in her eyes. "I'd known he was gay. He was my best friend.
She was quiet for a moment and then shook her head slowly. "Now I'm left alone here in a lot of ways. I don't know if there's really anyone to blame for the fire, but I'm very bitter. Lost and bitter."
Like so many others whose lives were touched by that fire a year ago, the woman would not give her name. There remains a sensitivity to the tragedy and its circumstances.
"It's not a place I want to go near again," said one man, one of about a half dozen club patrons who survived the fire. Dressed in casual clothes, wearing sunglasses, the man was interviewed in his lawyer's office yesterday afternoon. He would not give his name, or describe his employment. And he was not going to attend the memorial services.
"I can't handle that," he said.
"I got caught when I didn't want to get caught," he said, and still only a few of his close friends know that he was in the Cinema Follies that night.
Death, he said, would have been a release. Instead, he said, "I survivied to go back to work, to have considerable physical discomfort, mental anquish . . ." Like others, he feels anger and resentment about the deaths and injuries.
Wives and children of some of the men who died as a result of the Cinema Follies fire have filed suits in D.C. Superior Court, contending that both the club owners and the District government were negligent. They have asked for millions of dollars in damages.
One man has brought a lawsuit in behalf of his brother, a skiller office machine operator who spent 14 days in the hospital before he died, his lungs severely damaged from smoke inhalation. A court-appointed administrator from Arlington has gone to court for the family of one of the victims.
The lawsuits say that on the late afternoon of Oct. 24, 1978, Maring Crowetz, a club employe, was shampooing a rug in the club lobby with flammable cleaning fluid when there was an explosion and then a fire.
Flames shot up a single, narrow staircase that led to the small theater club on the second floor. Trapped by flames and choked by dense smoke, some of the men scrambled to an exit door near the theater screen but discovered it was padlocked - a finding confirmed by FBI laboratory analysts.
The lawsuits contend that Crowetz was negligent in using the cleaning fluid and that William Oates, the man identified as the club owner, also was negligent in that the building on L Street was in vioation of various building and electrical codes.
The lawsuits also contend that the District's fire and building inspectors failed to conduct adequate inspections of the Cinema Follies, leaving violations uncorrected.
Oates has pleaded innocent to 16 violations of city codes at the old Cinema Follies building. He also was charged by the city prosecutor's office with three violations of the fire code and a zoning violation at 24 O St. SE - the new location of a club called only "Follies."