Because of an editing error, a story Thursday about the death of District firefighter John T. Williams incorrectly indentified his 8-year-old daughter. She is Clarice Angelique Williams, the daughter of Williams and his former wife, Clarice Barnes.
The mood at Engine Company No. 6, where firefighter John T. Williams had made his home, was somber yesterday. Just 15 hours after they had watched him plunge to his death, his comrades spoke in hushed tones of "Big John."
"He was a super firefighter, kind, a gentleman, compassionate, and he did his job," said Battalion Chief George Capps. "He was what I call a fireman, and you can't pay a better tribute to a man than that."
"It's a close-knit bunch here, and the men are feeling pretty bad," Capps said. "It's going to hurt for a long time."
Williams, 36, was fatally injured early yesterday during a two-alarm fire in the 800 block of 14th Street NW, the heart of Washington's flagging red-light district. He was the second District firefighter to die in the line of duty in 13 months.
According to a fire department spokesman, Williams and about six other men climbed onto the marquee of the Capital Book Store at 1401 H St. NW and attempted to break into the second floor of the building to search for five people reportedly trapped inside.
Williams, a 10-year veteran of the fire department assigned to Rescue Squad No. 1, stepped onto an old air duct that was covered by a piece of tin and fell through to his shoulders.
Two firefighters who heard him scream attempted to pull him out of the duct, the spokesman said, but lost their grips. Williams fell 17 feet into the basement. He was taken to George Washington University Medical Center, where he died a short time later. The D.C. medical examiner said he died of a broken neck.
About 20 customers were in the store when the blaze started shortly before 1 a.m. and it was learned later that all made it to safety, a fire department spokesman said.
"The folly of it all is that no one was trapped," Capps said. "But that's the way it goes. We break our necks and bust our guts, and usually no one is inside. But you have to do what you have to do."
Three other firefighters, William Spencer, Robert Walker and Sgt. James Funk, were treated at local hospitals for smoke inhalation and were released, officials said. A fifth firefighter, William Perry, was in good condition yesterday at George Washington University Medical Center suffering from back injuries and smoke inhalation, a hospital spokeswoman said.
A fire investigator said the cause of the fire is under investigation. Kerosene heaters, which are illegal in the District unless they are properly vented, were taken from the scene, and officials are investigating to see whether they caused the fire, which started in 804 H St. NW and did about $80,000 damage to that establishment and adjacent businesses, including the book store and the Casino Royal adult theatre.
Yesterday, Williams' wife, Linda, called her husband a "very devoted father" to their daughter, Clarice Angelique, 8, and his two stepchildren, Richard Dickens, 14, and Richena Dickens, 16.
Mrs. Williams, who met her husband when he was an ambulance driver and she was a nurse in the emergency room at Howard University Hospital, said her husband "lived firefighting. When we went on a trip, he would visit the local firehouses and talk about firefighting in Washington."
Williams' sister, Lena, said her brother was born in Washington and attended Cardozo High School. At the time, she said, their family lived next to a firehouse, and her brother became friends with a sergeant who was stationed there named Theodore Coleman, who is now the chief of the department.
"Every time they left on call, we'd run out and watch the fire trucks go by," she said. "They were men you could look up to." After her brother returned from a stint in the Army in the early 1970s, she said, Coleman encouraged him to join the department, and he became a firefighter in 1974.
"We called him 'Big John,' " said Michael Thompson, who was stationed with Williams at Engine Company No. 22 for six years before Williams was transferred to Rescue Squad No. 1. "He was strong as a bull. You knew that if you got into trouble, you could depend on John to pull you out."
Yesterday's fire forced a number of businesses along 14th Street to close while a cleanup began. The entire area, where a major part of Washington's topless bars, massage parlors and sex-oriented bookstores are located, has been under increasing pressure from civic groups that want the businesses closed.
Arthur J. Schultz, executive director of the Franklin Square Association, which is spearheading the effort to close the businesses, said yesterday, "This is a hell of a price to pay" to rid the area of pornography. He also pointed out that last night the marquee was flashing around the bookstore's sign in preparation for its reopening.
"I think it's outrageous," he said. "It's indicative of the kind of element we're dealing with. A firefighter loses his life trying to save their businesses and they can't even stay closed in deference to him."
"John was just doing his job," Capps said, "and he paid the supreme price. The man was just doing what he was trained to do, and that's the chance we all take every time we go out of here."