One minute, Veda Harper, 15, was sleeping soundly on the downstairs sofa. The next, she was scrambling around her family's apartment, screaming, waking as many of the 13 other children as she could, trying to save them from the fire that was engulfing their home.
"My sister was calling my name and saying, 'The house is on fire,' " Harper said. "Then I started calling all the kids to get them out of the house."
Harper and four of the other children made it to safety. But a 3-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl were killed and seven others were injured yesterday in the early-morning blaze, which gutted their two-story, six-bedroom town house at the Sursum Corda Courts complex just west of North Capitol Street in Northwest Washington.
The children who died were identified as Camila Coefield and Derrick Bailey. Those taken to Children's Hospital and Howard University Hospital suffered burns, broken bones and smoke inhalation. They were identified as Bernard Graham, 14; George Hutchinson, 14; Curtis Coefield, 13; Chris Bailey, 5; Tion Bailey, 7; Jeffrey Jennings, 10; and Grafton Coefield, 2. Chris was in critical condition. Hospital officials said the other children's conditions were not life-threatening.
Ronald Jackson, an adult who was with the children, suffered two broken ankles and was in satisfactory condition last night at Howard University Hospital.
"I've lived here off and on since 1974, and I've never seen a fire like this one," said Sister Diane Roche, manager of the complex. "It had a chance to spread before anyone noticed it. It just happened so quickly."
Roche said that the apartment belongs to Frieda Jackson Harper, a tenant at Sursum Corda for 21 years, who is grandmother to 12 of the children.
She and her husband were on their way to a relative's funeral when the fire began.
Veda Harper said the blaze began about 8 a.m. when a pan of grease caught fire on the stove. The fire ignited a curtain and quickly spread through the apartment, which was equipped with smoke detectors.
Like all the children, Rommelle Carr, 12, was asleep when the blaze began. He said he awoke and couldn't see for the smoke in his second-story bedroom.
"I jumped out the window," Carr said. He rescued three of the other children, catching them as they also leaped from the window.
Witnesses said that Ronald Jackson threw several children from a second-story window before he jumped himself.
"Ronnie did a beautiful job," said Sister Helen McCullough, a neighbor. "He saved a lot of them."
The fire was brought under control in about 15 minutes, and no other apartments were damaged, a fire official said. The official said an estimate of total damage had not been determined.
Sursum Corda residents donated clothes, food and money to the family.
By 3:30 p.m., 30 green plastic bags were piled in a corner of the complex's community center. Yellow stickers identified the contents of each: shoes, pants, curtains, sheets and so on. Two boxes of groceries sat in another corner. A small box contained more than $60 that had been donated to the victims.
In a nearby building, maintenance workers and residents hastened to ready an unfinished four-bedroom apartment so the family would have shelter last night. Workers scurried to place furniture, set up doors, put together beds and install windows.
Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon visited the complex yesterday afternoon, and "promised to do what she could," said Alverta Munlyn, a longtime family friend who took some of the children into her home.
As Munlyn walked to her apartment, a boy with tears in his eyes stopped her and said, "My grandmother has some clothes she wants to give. We want to do whatever we can."
Neighbors said they were devastated by the fire. "It just hurts so much," said resident Viola Ellis. "Your heart just goes out."
Another neighbor, Robert Wood, lamented the deaths of the children, whom he recalled as "very friendly."
"Camila was the mascot of our security committee," Wood said. "She was into everything. We really take this as a personal loss. We're going to miss them both."
Clarence Harper, Frieda Harper's husband, said he was moved by the outpouring of community support.
"This is what the community does all the time," Harper said through tears. "We try to help one another here."
At one point in the afternoon, Roche, who buzzed all over the complex yesterday, stopped in the community center to thank the residents.
"You are special," she said. "I am shocked at your response."
Then she amended herself: "Actually," she said, "I'm not the least bit surprised."