Black ashes and soot from the fire are strewn on the second floor of the Northeast Washington row house. The walls are charred. The windows are broken. The electricity is off. The bathroom is ruined. Moreover, Ethel Featherston's best friend -- her daughter -- was killed in the fire.
Still, Featherstone has no intention of moving from her new dilapidated home.
"This is my home," she said proudly. "I own it an it's paid for. I moved here on Nov. 12, 1950, and been here ever since. I'm gonna stay right here until I die."
Featherstone, a short, frail 80-year-old woman who walks with the aid of a wooden crutch, slowly makes her way donw the narrow hallway to the dining room table. She leans against the wall for extra support as she walks. Two stained white bandages cover part of her legs. Her hair is covered with a black scarf and her black-rimmed bifocal glasses rest low on her nose as she talks.
She has but one light in the house and that is in the kitchen. Her neighbor has hooked up the wiring to her kitchen and she has agreed to pay him whatever he says her share of the electric bill will be. Her brother stops by to bring her food, although she says she can cook. "You just bring me some oatmeal and see what I do," she says smiling. A nearby church sends her lunch every day.
Some people -- she doesn't remember
their names -- have said they will remove the debris from the fire and replace the front windows. She hopes they do the work before it gets cold or a "hard rain comes."
"I just pray the Lord don't let a rain come this way," she said as she points to the windowless front of the red brick nine-room row house. The faded green walls in the dining room of the two-story house are lined with pictures of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper . Her back yard is large enough to have a second house built. She said she used to rent her basement "but people got so bad."
Ethel Featherstone is a survivor. Her relatives, her neighbors and her friends have tried to convince her to move out of the house. But she refuses. f
"Her brother's been trying to get her out of there, said Robert Hill, a neighbor who has known Featherstone for 25 years. "The best thing for her to do is to go to a senior citizens home. But, she said she lives in that house and she will die there. . . I feel sorry for her."
Featherstone is a proud woman and nothing seems to deter her. She understands people and has certain instincts about things. Talk of leaving her home, even temporarily, brings out her strongest feelings.
On Tuesday, two women from the D.C. Department of Human Services visted her home after someone called to complain about her living conditions. When one of the women asked her if she would like to leave her home, her eyebrow raised and her face flushed as she replied sharply, "That's out of the picture. I'm not going to move out of here!"
"But what about the house, do you have a bathroom?" asked the other woman. "I got a slop jar," Featherstone said, then paused to ask the man seated in the room "to excuse my language.
"Ain't nothing working since the fire came," she said. "All the electricity is cut off."
" what is it that we can do for you?" asked one woman. Featherstone continued to talk about the fire, which occurred about 11:15 p.m., on Sept. 4. cShe remembers it was a Thursday because earlier that same day her daughter, Marie Helfey, had taken her to the clinic at D. C. General Hospital. Featherstone suffers from arthritis, which she calls "authur." That evening, after her daughter fixed her dinner and made sure she took her medicine, her daughter told her she was going out for a while.
The next thing she recalls was being taken out of the house by friends who said there was a fire upstairs. "I didn't smell it or hear anything. A fire bomb was thrown in my house," she said.
Her daughter, who was upstairs, was burned in the fire. After several days at the Washington Hospital Center, her daughter died. "I never got to see her (in the hospital)," Featherstone said.
Again, the woman from the city government asks the question, "What can the Department of Human Resources (sic) do for you?"
"Who is the Human Resources?" Featherstone asked incredulously.
The two women tried to explain how the Department of Human Services, formerly called the Department of Human Resources, helps people in need of assistance. "It's public assistance," one woman said to explain what DHS is all about.
"Oh, I don't need no public [welfare] assistance, "Featherstone said. She said she already receives monthly checks from the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration.
Would she like to leave her home and go some place where people can help her? the city worker asked one more time.
"Heaven, heaven, heaven," she replied with a smile.
Featherstone said she does not have any fire insurance since she and her late husband let it lapse.
She then described how she and her husband bought the house in 1950 for $10,250. "That was a lot of money in those days," someone noted. Featherstone nodded her head in agreement.
When asked if she lives alone, Featherstone answered, "I got one other with me." Who is that? "Jesus," she answers. She also said she has a dog, Molly B, who keeps her company.
She was born on feb. 15, 1900, in Chester County, S.C., where she said she worked as a laborer. "I could pick 300 pounds of cotton a day," she said. s
She is the oldest of 10 children. Was she educated? "I didn't get one," she replied, "none but what God gives me." She said she worked plowing land in the fields of South Carolina for years.
Later, she moved to the Washington area to find a better way of living. She got married and her husband served in "the war," she said. She worked as a domestic. She said she took care of "soldiers' children" at Andrews Air Force Base.
Featherstone said that when she and her husband, who died years ago, moved to their D.C. home in 1950 they were delighted to have their own home. "We worked hard to get a place of our own."
And now Ethel Featherstone doesn't want to give it up.