I can't imagine the devastation that families felt just two days before the new year when a fire and series of explosions turned their Temple Hills apartment building into rubble.
Many of them were forced to start anew in 2000 with little more than their lives. But you have to admire the spirit of people like Easter M. Wade, a 70-year-old grandmother, who is too busy counting her blessings to waste time worrying about all the material things she lost in the fire.
Wade, who lived on the second floor of a building in the sprawling Carriage Hill Apartments, was in the shower when the fire broke out about 10 a.m. on Dec. 30. Her 8-year-old grandson yelled to her that a neighbor from downstairs was at the door with two children. Wade draped a robe around her damp body, rushed to the door and found the woman standing there with a child on one hip and a 5-year-old boy in tow.
The woman was scolding her son, Wade said.
"I said, 'Well, what's the matter?' " Wade recalled. "She said, 'He just set my apartment on fire.' "
Not realizing the magnitude of the fire, Wade let them in, closed the door and went back to the bathroom to finish getting dressed. She was brushing her teeth when the children called to her that thick smoke was seeping under the door and filling the room.
"I didn't know the fire was that big," Wade recalled. "I said, yes Lord, let me get y'all out of here. Let's go to the balcony. No sooner than we got to the porch, we heard a big boom."
Frightened, Wade's 7-year-old granddaughter leapt off the second-floor balcony on her own. Wade then called to some residents and apartment service workers gathering outside below and instructed them to catch the children she was about to hand over the balcony. They tried to talk her into waiting for firefighters to hoist a ladder to fetch them. She refused.
"I told them there was no time to wait," Wade recalled. "I said, 'Just put y'all hands together, 'cause here come the children.' " One by one, the children landed safely into the human chain. Wade was about to jump off the balcony herself when she heard the thump of the firefighters' ladder against the side of the building. She climbed down and never looked back.
"When I got to the ground, they said, 'You got some nerves, Miss,' " Wade said. "I told them, before I do anything, I put God first. I ask Him what to do. I'm just glad we were all saved."
Minutes later, a second, more powerful explosion leveled the building. Six firefighters made it out just in time. Investigators said later that the 5-year-old boy playing with matches must have sparked the blaze. The explosions that followed were caused by medicinal oxygen tanks in the apartment and ruptured gas lines, investigators said.
In the end, no one died, and only a few people were injured. But 24 families were displaced, including residents of an adjoining building that lost power when firefighters cut off the gas and electricity. Many of those homes also were damaged by water and smoke.
Iyauta Moore, a 23-year-old graduate student at American University in the District, was one of those residents. She had returned to Prince George's a day earlier from a holiday visit with her family in New York and was at work the morning of the fire. She hadn't even unpacked. In the conference room at work, she saw a televised report about the fire and realized the drama was unfolding at her complex. She finished her workday and hoped her apartment was spared.
Moore wept when she saw her apartment for the first time. She didn't have renter's insurance. Her white furniture was spotted with soot and rust, parts of her bed had been smashed and most of her groceries were spoiled.
"I was fortunate not to have fire damage," said Moore, who graduated from Syracuse University and is working on a master's degree in public administration. "But I've incurred so many bills that I cannot afford."
With no family in town and no car, she hired movers. Many companies were closed for the holidays. But she found one she could afford, paid a $200 deposit and left a 13-inch color television as collateral for the balance.
At $60 an hour, the company estimated the move would take about three hours, Moore said. It took six. Then, workers tacked on extra fees. Unable to pay the unexpected balance at once, she forfeited her television. Later, she noticed that some of her belongings were missing, particularly a few expensive jackets packed in clear plastic. She filed a police report.
For now, Moore is living in the Greenbelt apartment where she was placed by officials at Southern Management, the company that operates her old apartment complex. But the rent is nearly $150 more a month than at her old place, and after a month, she will be expected to pay the new rate.
Frustrated and broke, Moore is considering withdrawing from school.
"This is so hard," she said. "It's making me consider going back to New York."
If Moore has to move back to New York without completing her studies, that would be an unfortunate end to an already sad story.
Though she didn't ask, Moore surely could use some financial help. But in the meantime, perhaps her spirit can be strengthened by the words of a 70-year-old grandmother.
"I feel good," Easter Wade said. "I done lost everything. But it's like spilled milk. I can't gather it up. I've always been the kind of person who felt that material things I can come by. I'm not gonna let it worry me at all."
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: Easter M. Wade, center, is hugged by daughters Jacqueline Taylor, top, and Carla Hardwick. A fire destroyed her apartment, but Wade, 70, says she is thankful for what she has, not wistful for what she doesn't have.