It was a cold January night and, for the third consecutive week, there was no heat in Lawrence Henry McLean's one-bedroom apartment in a Southeast Washington housing project. But he knew how to cope -- he turned on the oven and the stove burners, opened the oven door and went to sleep.
McLean, 42, never awoke. Last Monday, three days after he had fallen asleep, he was found next to the oven. He was dead of acute carbon monoxide poisoning.
The gas in the burners needed oxygen to burn, the medical examiner said, and used up virtually all of the oxygen in the small, sealed room. What McLean breathed instead -- and died of -- was the carbon monoxide produced as a byproduct of the combustion.
Now, nearly a week after McLean's death, most radiators are still cold in the three-story, 15-unit housing project at 328 Ridge Road SE. Each family in the building continues to fight the cold in the same way as McLean: they keep the ovens on, day and night, as sources of warmth and survival.
Every year at this time, hundreds of Washington residents struggle to keep warm despite defectve furnaces, late fuel deliveries and the failure of landlords -- or the the tenants themselves -- to pay untility bills.
On Wednesday night, a broken boiler left about 400 residents of the Langston Dwellings public housing project at 2101 G St. NE without heat, a situation that remained uncorrected yesterday.
The families at Ridge Road building -- mostly women with young children -- are angry about having to rely on their ovens instead of their radiators for heat. They are angry, that Lawrence McLean died, and that they lost a trusted neighbor who would joke with them about their love lives and drive them to supermarkets.
Most of all, they are frightened. They do not want to share McLean's fate.
"Ever since he died it scares me to sleep with the stove on," said Dorothea Gaskins, 25, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her two children. "I'm up all night turning on the stove for heat and then turning off the stove so we don't all die in our sleep."
Residents of the building say they have complained to their landlord, the D.C. Property Management Administration (formerly the National Capitol Housing Authority). But Minnie Ross, manager of the building for the administration, said she first learned the building did not have heat on Monday, the day McLean was found dead. Engineers have been sent to the building to repair the boiler, she said, but it could be another few days before the boiler works again.
Meanwhile, residents of the building wear sweaters, spend lots of time in the kitchen near the stove, and talk about "the man who died downstairs."
McLean's body, they say, was discovered by his brother Martin, who became worried when McLean failed to answer the phone. McLean grew up in North Carolina, had been in the military, but in recent years developed heart trouble and could not work. Nevertheless, he sometimes fixed the cars of friends and acquaintances to supplement his welfare money. He lived alone.
"He always carried his tool box with him," said one neighbor, Jeanie Ball. "He'd always crack jokes. He'd say to me, 'You ain't married, we can hook up.' And I'd say, 'Now Lawrence, you just be quiet.'
"Once, when I had my little girl with me and we were waiting outside in the cold for the bus, he took my little girl to school for me. And at Christmas time he gave me a ride to the Safeway.
"He was always doing nice things for people," said Ball.
A friend of McLean, Roy Johnson, could not recall McLean's ever complaining about the lack of heat in his apartment. "But in November, when none of us had hot water, he told me he had to go over to an aunt's house to take a shower.
"After a while you get used to life being one big hassle."