The stinging smell of smoke still hung in the air yesterday morning around the brick row house just north of Logan Circle in which four homeless men seeking shelter from the autumn chill had died the night before.
As fire investigators continued to search the rubble, neighborhood residents paused to peer through a twisted windowpane, melted by the heat of the blaze, at the charred interior of the three-story structure at 1637 13th St. NW and wonder about the identities of the victims.
Around the corner at an Amoco service station, a group of 10 homeless men and women worried that four men absent from their regular crowd -- two they knew as Paul and two called Junior -- were those victims.
"We're missing people who used to be here every morning around now," said Margaret Watkins, one of the group of street people who gather each day at 14th and Corcoran streets NW. "We hope it wasn't our friends."
D.C. fire investigators said that the two-alarm blaze at the house was caused by a small fire the men started in the basement.
Deputy Fire Chief Ray Alfred said the men apparently built a "small warming fire" under the wooden stairs in the basement of the house shortly after 9 p.m.
"The guys apparently tried to keep warm and lit a fire and it got out of control," Alfred said last night.
Alfred said it was unclear if the men used flammable liquids to start the fire. He also said the investigators had not determined if the fire had been left unattended, or if the four victims tried to escape from the burning basement after the fire began to spread.
"They were probably not asleep when it happened because people said they heard them screaming," Alfred said. "But we don't know where they were when the fire got out of control."
It took 75 firefighters an hour to bring the fire under control. The bodies of the four were found on the second and third floors of the building.
Neighbors said the house had been vacant and boarded up for several months. Archie Turner, who lives next door, said he thought a lawyer had bought the house and was planning to renovate it, but "somebody busted through the courtyard in the back" and there had been people sleeping in the house for nearly three months.
"Folks went in there to sleep like they do in most of these vacant places," Turner said.
Authorities said the four men died from smoke inhalation and burns. As of last night, authorities had identified three of the men and were trying to contact relatives.
"In our profession, we know from experience that when it starts getting cold these street people look for refuge and they look for vacant houses," said Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman.
At the Central Union Mission, a block from the fire, shelter administrators scoured the list of regulars to see if any might be among the victims.
"We've been going over the names this morning to see if it's any of the people who weren't here last night," said the Rev. Paul Thompson, the shelter's director. Although the mission is sometimes forced to turn people away when its 112 beds are full, Thompson said that there were four beds empty Friday night.
Thompson said he was particularly worried about one man he spoke with earlier in the week. "I asked him, 'Where have you been staying?' and he said, 'Up the street.' "
"Any house that's not in use, if a guy wants to get into it bad enough he'll get in," Thompson said. "There's some guys that won't go into the mission no matter how cold it is."