A 66-year-old man likely fell asleep while smoking a borrowed cigarette early yesterday, sparking the two-alarm fire that killed him and damaged seven apartments in a Northeast public housing high-rise for the elderly, police said.

Jack J. "Love" Johnson didn't have cigarettes the day before he died, said one of his neighbors at Edgewood Terrace who visited him Thursday to ask for a smoke.

"He just had surgery and was trying to quit smoking anyways," said Leon Morris, 50, a resident who was evacuated during the fire.

But the elderly men who lean on their canes in the hallways of the building in the 600 block of Edgewood Street in Northeast Washington said they sneak cigarettes to one another, and someone probably helped Johnson satisfy his craving.

The smoky blaze was reported about 2 a.m., and shortly after about a dozen D.C. police officers arrived and entered the high-rise, police said.

Flames and smoke poured from Apartment 731, where Johnson lived, and the sixth, seventh and eighth floors were thick with smoke, said Sgt. Joe Gentile, a District police spokesman.

The officers helped evacuate residents to the first floor and the basement recreation room, pushing wheelchairs and helping those with walkers and canes. Most of the complex's residents are elderly or disabled, police said.

Firefighters had to contend with a steep, narrow, snow-choked road to get their equipment to the scene, witnesses said.

Once firefighters got to the complex, they were met with a pile of furniture that blocked the standpipes that provide hose connections in the building.

It was a small pile likely placed there by a resident and caused some frustration but no significant delay for the firefighters, said Elliot Bernold, president of Edgewood Management, which operates the complex.

The firefighters were dousing the flames in 731 as alarms were ringing and water was dripping into Apartment 631 directly below, said its occupant, James Ford.

"Look at the water, it just started coming in on my bed," said Ford, 60, splashing a slippered foot on his soggy, Oriental carpet. "It's never looked like this before. I keep it neat."

Red Cross officials helped house Ford and about six other residents in motels, Bernold said.

One civilian was injured and refused treatment, and two police officers were treated for smoke inhalation at George Washington University Hospital and released, police said.