A spectacular four-alarm fire burned out of control in a Northwest Washington apartment building for more than 90 minutes last night, gutting the four-story structure at 1444 W St. and leaving 34 families homeless.
Only one minor injury was reported in the blaze, which sent flames leaping into the nighttime sky and visible as far away as the Virginia suburbs. The fire, which was first reported shortly before 6 p.m., apparently began in a second-floor apartment of the 34-unit building and spread rapidly through the roof, bringing more than 150 firefighters, 50 pieces of fire apparatus and Fire Chief Theodore Coleman to the scene.
No estimate of damage was immediately available, but fire officials said the interior of the building appeared to be a total loss.
The injured person was identified as John Floyd, 67, an occupant of the apartment in which fire officials believe the fire started.
He was treated for smoke inhalation at the Veterans Administration Hospital, and it was unclear last night if he would be admitted.
Fire officals said the blaze may have been started by a match discarded in a wastebasket.
Fire department officials said the building was fully occupied when the fire broke out but that all residents were able to make their way to safety. "We were very lucky this happened at 6 o'clock instead of 3 or 4 in the morning," said Battalion Chief Ray Alfred.
One woman resident and her three children had not been accounted for late last night, but fire officials said they believe they were not in the building when the blaze erupted.
Alfred said the fire, which was declared under control at 7:30, had burned out of control so long "because it got a real head start on us."
The first firefighters who arrived on the scene found the upper floors of building engulfed in flame and heavy smoke and rushed in through the front door with hoses, Alfred said.
The blaze intensified quickly, however, eventually repelling firefighters and forcing them to fight it exclusively from outside, he said.
At one point, hoses from four extension ladders and "cherry-pickers" were pouring powerful streams of water on the four corners of the building's roof, which ultimately collapsed into the blazing fourth floor. Officials said rapid spread of the fire may have been assisted by the deep false ceilings in the building, which can act almost like a flue.
The approximately 70 families evacuated from the building and from an apartment building next door were taken to St. Augustine Catholic Church, immediately behind the burning building.
There, officials from the church, the Red Cross, the building's management and the city government made arrangements to house, clothe and feed the 34 families who lived in the burned building.
Those evacuated from the adjacent building were permitted to return to their apartments late last night.
"This is a tragedy, a real tragedy, not just the fire, but the implications for all these families who were burned out, who lost all of their belongings," said the Rev. John Mudd, pastor of the church.
The gym of the church's elementary school was crowded with adults and children dressed as they were when they fled down the building.
Carrie Hall, a State Department employe who has lived in the building for 12 years, escaped with her two teen-aged children and the clothes they were wearing.
"There's no point in getting sad," she said, despite the fact that her fourth-floor apartment and its contents were totally destroyed. "If I get sad, then a lot of my neighbors will be sad. To keep them going, I have to keep going," she said with a tired smile.