Tyra Hunter's life didn't make much of a ripple until its final moments.

Certainly, the 24-year-old lived flamboyantly, announcing at age 15 that he was gay and deciding two years later to live as a woman. Still, in the blue-collar Southeast Washington community where he grew up, Hunter was, in many ways, a neighborhood regular.

"You'd see him walking around in a dress and high heels and looking all made up, prettier than a lot of women around here," said resident Walter Hunter, 51, no relation to Tyra Hunter. "But it wasn't a big deal. We knew him since he was a boy, and we always knew he was a little different. Funny thing was, it didn't bother nobody. We didn't pay him a whole lot of mind."

Not until Aug. 7, when a car accident left Hunter bleeding to death at the corner of 50th and C streets SE.

What happened that day remains in dispute and has been the subject of two internal investigations by the D.C. fire department. Residents say that when rescuers began working on Hunter, they were so stunned to discover he was a man that they stopped treating him and laughed and joked before finally taking him to D.C. General Hospital, where he died.

Fire officials have said medics never stopped treating Hunter. And while they conceded that a derogatory comment was made by a rescue technician, they said Hunter could not have been saved.

No one, however, disputes this: Tyra Hunter has become a cause celebre for myriad groups from the gay and straight communities enraged that he was ridiculed in his final moments by rescue workers caring for him.

Hunter's face has been emblazoned on T-shirts over the words "God's Gift." Two coalitions have been formed in his name. At least 12 community organizations representing groups supporting gay and civil rights have joined protests against the fire department.

A recent candlelight vigil at D.C. fire department headquarters drew more than 200 demonstrators, an eclectic mix of longtime residents and professional activists, men in business suits and men in drag, neighborhood watch captains and Transgender Nation leaders.

"I have never seen a cause that crossed so many boundaries: gay and straight, black and white," said Cathy Renna, co-chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "All of our work should be this cooperative."

The fire department, meanwhile, has been reeling from the outcry. Fire officials, acknowledging that their first investigation was inadequate, reopened the case last week. Under pressure from protest groups, they also have started sensitivity training.

It remains unclear whether a minutes-long delay in treating the critically injured Hunter could have cost him his life. Protesters say the issue revolves more around the department's treatment of minorities and gays. In recent weeks, groups have hammered the officials with renewed anger over internal department documents that suggest a rescuer called Hunter a "bitch" in front of 100 bystanders.

"This was a car wreck that turned into a bigger wreck," a District firefighter said. "Nobody expected things to get out of hand like this."

Certainly not Margie Hunter, Tyra's mother, an unassuming woman who has found herself suddenly in the eye of controversy, taking the microphone at demonstrations, handing out petitions for gay rights, demanding action from the fire department. It's a role she reluctantly accepted and now proudly defends.

"I didn't want to believe what happened to {Tyra}," said Hunter, 53. "I thought it was a bunch of angry talk. But the more I heard, the more I believed. Now I have to speak my mind. That's what I taught my children to do."

Tyra Hunter, born Tyrone Michael Hunter in Culpeper, Va., and his sister were raised by their mother after their father left when Tyra was 7.

She speaks bluntly and warmly of her son's "different ways" when he was boy.

"By the time he was 13, I knew he was going to be gay," Margie Hunter said. "I would buy him guns and trains, and he played with girl's dolls. He didn't want to play sports; he wanted to model clothes for his aunt. He'd rather do his sister's hair than roughhouse with the boys."

Not once, Margie said, did she consider trying to alter her son's behavior.

"The first thing you teach children is to respect others for who they are," she said. "How could I not do the same for my own son? He was never in trouble, never hurt anybody. I couldn't have been more proud of him."

Tyra Hunter apparently heeded his mother's words early on.

When he was 15, Margie said, Tyra confided that he was gay and "felt like he should be a girl." She sat him down on his bed for a frank talk.

"I told him that he was going to have a hard road ahead," she said. "The public doesn't look kindly on people who are gay. But if he could deal with that, he should go ahead and be who he had to be. I knew I could accept it."

To a large degree, the protests over Tyra Hunter's death have been fueled by intense support for Margie Hunter. Known in the neighborhood as "Mom," even to older residents, she paved the way for Tyra's acceptance in the community with unwavering support and defense of her son. By the time Tyra was a teenager, "we all knew about him, and I never knew anybody to speak badly of him," neighbor Ann Talbot said. "All kids should be that behaved. Mom knew how to raise her children."

By the time he was 17, Tyrone unofficially had changed his name to Tyra and, although he never had a sex change, lived as a woman. He discarded men's clothing, opting for dresses, lipstick and a highlighted wig. When he shopped for clothes with his mother, he jokingly scolded her for calling him by his male name.

He lived at home and worked as a hairdresser, holding jobs at several area boutiques.

"That's all he wanted to do; he loved doing hair," said Tyra Hunter's sister, Linette, 21. "He was starting to get a lot of customers. He loved going to work."

On Aug. 7, Tyra Hunter was headed to work with a friend when their Hyundai Excel collided with a Ford Mustang at the corner of 50th and C streets SE. The driver of the Mustang, Gerald Jay Johnson, 21, was charged with negligent homicide.

According to witnesses and investigative reports, firefighters and Emergency Medical Service workers arrived at the scene and found that bystanders had removed Hunter and his female friend, Tedessa Rankin, from the car and laid them on the ground. Hunter was bleeding profusely, witnesses said, and appeared to choke briefly on front teeth that had been knocked out by the impact of the crash.

What happened then is at the crux of the controversy. According to an internal memo, two fire department lieutenants, Dennis Blackwell and Mark Tasciotti, interviewed several witnesses, including Catherine Poole, who, at the time, lived in the 5000 block of Call Place SE.

According to the memo, Poole told investigators that Hunter, wearing pants and a blouse, was conscious when rescuers arrived and "was starting to complain of pain, and the ambulance person that was treating {Hunter} said to her that Everything is going to be all right, honey.'

"At that point, she started to urinate {on} herself," the memo continued. "The ambulance person started to cut the pants leg on the jeans. {Poole said} he started cutting up the leg and suddenly stopped, and jumped back when he found out that she was a man and said, This bitch ain't no girl . . . it's a nigger, he's got a dick.' "

Poole said the black technician "then got up and went over to his partner, and they were over there laughing and telling jokes about that," the memo said. She said Hunter went two to five minutes without treatment as the rescuers laughed.

Two other witnesses corroborated the derogatory statement, according to another memo, although descriptions of the technician varied, as well as whether Hunter went without treatment. Hunter died two hours later of blunt trauma at D.C. General Hospital.

Eleven days after the incident, D.C. Fire Chief Otis J. Latin Sr. announced that although a derogatory comment apparently was made by a technician, investigators could not determine who made it. No one was disciplined.

That announcement infuriated community organizations, which intensified protests and demanded the technician who made the statement be fired. Capt. Alvin Carter, a department spokesman, acknowledged that the initial investigation "was hurriedly done, because of pressure to produce results from the gay community. This time, all of the issues are going to be resolved, and there will be no timetable to produce them."

According to department memos, the witnesses who were interviewed identified the technician who cut open Hunter's pants as the man who made the comment. But Carter said the technician, whom he identified as firefighter Adrian Williams, was never singled out in the investigation.

"Our investigation never revealed that Williams, indeed, made the remark," Carter said. "We all look alike and dress the same at a fire or emergency scene. The community at large can't identify us by how we function at the scene."

Several calls to Williams at his fire engine company were not returned last week.

Tracey Conaty, a spokeswoman for Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), said that her group and others were relieved that the case was reopened but that she remained skeptical that anyone would be disciplined.

"One of the reasons so many people haven't let go of this was because it was so blatant," she said. "It happened in front of so many people. They want to see a responsible reaction by a government institution."

Margie Hunter is searching less for a reaction than for information.

"Tyrone always was so sure he would be famous, that he'd be on the television," she said. "I don't think he meant this way. I know I didn't. But maybe this is God's will and something good will come of it. I really can't say."

Most troubling, Hunter said, is that she'll never get the answer to the one question "that keeps ringing in my head when I go to sleep."

"You know what I really wonder about?" she asked. "Whether he could hear what they said about him. Or hear them laughing. He was conscious for a while, you know. I wonder if he heard them laughing and just gave up. Sometimes, it's hard not to." Staff writer Wendy Melillo contributed to this report. CAPTION: Emergency treatment of Tyra Hunter, who died after a car crash, has been criticized. CAPTION: Relatives of Tyra Hunter's pose with a picture of him. From left are his sister, Linette, his niece, Santana, and his mother, Margie.