D.C. Police Officer Clarence Smalls, a resident of the Brookside Park Condominiums in Oxon Hill, was driving his patrol car through Northeast Washington early yesterday afternoon when a voice on his radio broke through and said, "Uh, Clarence, got some bad news for you -- your place is on fire."
Smalls soon learned that a three-alarm fire had destroyed the roof above eight units. Temporarily displaced were upwards of 50 families whose units suffered smoke and water damage and were without electricity, said Tony DeStefano, spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department.
DeStefano estimated damage to the structure fronting busy Indian Head Highway at $1 million, with an additional loss of $350,000 in belongings. He said the cause of the fire is under investigation, but added, "Right now, we're not ruling suspicious [causes] out."
Smalls was among several dozen residents of the complex who were called away from work yesterday to hurry home and find out what had happened to their children, their pets and their belongings.
Although there were no injuries, the 80 county firefighters who fought the blaze in the beige-brick building suffered from the day's 93-degree heat and high humidity. County Fire Chief Jim Estepp called in the 25 members of the department's recruit training class to assist with the cleanup.
The fire, which was reported at 12:20 p.m., was extinguished in about an hour, DeStefano said.
But by late afternoon, residents of the building were still standing outside the yellow barriers, wondering about the extent of damage to their homes.
Daniel Hartley, a systems analyst in Alexandria, said he was fine, once he established that his pets -- four poodles, two cats and two ferrets -- had been rescued by a neighbor.
"They're all that mattered," said Hartley, whose apartment received damage mostly from smoke and water. "I've got a computer in there, too, but I can worry about that later."
Jennifer Olson, a federal worker, comforted her two cats and dog in a cage at her feet, while fretting about a missing cat, Mack.
"I hope he ran away," she said.
Firefighters, exhausted and hot, lounged on the grassy hillside leading into the condominium. Red Cross workers talked to residents and made plans for a meeting of the homeless at a nearby school. DeStefano said the condominium management would find motel rooms for residents of the most damaged apartments.
Most of the roof of the three-story building was gone and the walls on the top floor were black and crumbling. A firefighter briefly appeared in a charred hole that used to be a window.
"I got back from abroad two days ago," said J.J. Wayne, a Library of Congress employe, standing with his two dogs, Leda and Fafner. "I've got an awful lot at stake in that apartment.
"The neighbor above me?" he said, pointing to a ruined apartment on the third floor. "He's away now. But he had just replaced everything in his house. He had been vandalized."
As it turned out, Clarence Smalls was one of the lucky ones. His apartment was only "waterlogged," he said.
"When I got the news," he said, "I was investigating an incident involving a man with a gun. The mood I was in then, I figured the worst. But it's not so bad."