A heavy fire that broke out yesterday morning in the rear of a Petworth row house damaged that home and three adjacent ones and killed a 74-year-old man sleeping in a basement bedroom next door.

A 52-year-old man was arrested yesterday evening and charged with arson and homicide in the blaze, which killed Harry Lowell Sewell Sr., of 734 Quincy St. NW, police said.

Police in the 4th District identified the suspect as Dorian Wills, who they said has no fixed address. Police said there may have been a dispute between Wills and a female acquaintance who was visiting at 732 Quincy St. NW.

Two people in the row house at 732 Quincy , where the fire began, managed to escape, authorities said.

The fire department sounded a box alarm at 7:22 a.m. after neighbors called 911. Within five minutes, a second alarm was sounded. Four water pumpers, two ladder trucks and a rescue squad responded, said Capt. Kenneth L. Crosswhite, a department spokesman.

It took 100 firefighters more than 45 minutes to knock down the blaze, neighbors said; two hours after it started, firefighters were still checking for rekindling of the fire. Sewell was found lifeless at 8:15 a.m., but his body remained in the basement of the house for several hours while firefighters continued to clear charred wreckage. Sewell was pronounced dead at 1:55 p.m., officials said.

The morning blaze rattled neighbors who had just risen out of bed.

"Except on TV, I had never seen flames like that," said Deloris Richardson, whose home was among those damaged. Richardson said she and her son, Van Richardson III, 29, escaped without injury. "What woke me up was the noise and then the flames," she said.

Lt. Tom Barnard, of Truck Company 11, said he arrived to see "a wall of fire from the basement to the roof" of four row houses. The fire demolished the frame porch extension behind 732 Quincy St., destroying two vehicles parked in the yard and singeing 60-foot-tall trees in the rear. The fire also gutted much of the house where Sewell lived and damaged two other houses, at 730 and 736 Quincy St.

One firefighter was treated at the scene for a rapid pulse and was taken to Providence Hospital's police and fire clinic for an examination, Fire Chief Donald Edwards said.

Neither Sewell's house nor the house where the fire was set had a working smoke detector, said Battalion Chief Stephen M. Reid, a department spokesman.

D.C. property records list Berlee C. Chambers Jr. as the owner of the house where the fire was set. Efforts to reach Chambers yesterday were unsuccessful.

Friends and neighbors recalled Sewell as soft-spoken, polite and friendly. Isaac Quarles, 50, a close friend of the family who often spent the night at their home, said Sewell was retired and enjoyed annual vacations, including trips to Las Vegas and Cancun, Mexico. Sewell alternated between living with his two sons, Ronald K. Sewell, of Quincy Street, and Harry Sewell Jr., of Richmond, Quarles said.

Sewell's stepson, Gregory Brown, was killed in October 1991 outside the Quincy Street home. Police at the time believed Brown, 30, had been shot by one or more people who mistook him for someone else.

Friends gathered outside the home yesterday to console Ronald Sewell, 47, who, they said, had left for his job as a security guard before the fire broke out.

The Rev. Franklin G. Pryor, associate pastor of First Baptist Church and a friend of the family, offered Ronald Sewell a place to stay. Neighborhood groups offered temporary shelter and home repairs to those displaced by the fire.

Reid said District residents can obtain a free smoke detector from the fire department by calling 202-673-3331.

Staff writer Emily Wax also contributed to this story.