At 1 a.m. yesterday, a woman named Grace began a nightly ritual that often worried her roommates at the mental care foster home into a state of insomnia.
In the still of the night, she would quietly ease down the stairs of the 75 year-old brick and stucco building at 1715 Lamont St. NW., put on a pot of coffee and open a fresh pack of cigarrettes. Then, seated alone in the flow of the draft from a nearby stairwell, she would smoke and sip coffee until dawn.
But this time, as her trembling, nicotine-stained finger cupped a book of matches close to her wrinkle face, the whole book somehow ignited, searing her as the flaming matches fell on the couch.
Grace scurried from what foster home officials has designated the "smoking room" and into a bathroom to fill a coffee can with water. When she returned moments later, flames had engulfed the foam-filled, vinyl-covered couch and spread to what fire officials would later call "prime wood" stair railings.
The stairwell itself was sucking up black smoke and fire. The main path to safety from upstairs bedrooms had become a deadly flue.
"Oh, God! Fire!" one patient recalled screaming as the night turned "totally black" with smoke. Her fright-filled screams as she stumbled along the fiery stairs was the only warning survivors remembered hearing.
"I just put my hands over my face and ran into a sheet of fire," said another survivor. "I heard her screams, and I only had time to put on my night coat before everything went black."
Around them the aging building - a referral home for outpatients from St. Elizabeths mental hospital - was exploding in flame as elderly patients staggered from their beds into a murky world of heat and panic.
Inside the hollow, uninsulated walls, flames were racing roofward, whipped by currents of expanding, heated air.
For the patients, there was only one place to go.
One 58-year-old woman named Mary perched in a second-floor window as flames closed in on her. Neighbors, who yelled at her to save herself, recalled later that she closed her eyes and breathed heavily as she summoned her nerve.
Below her lay the crumpled, lifeless body of another patient who had already jumped.
"Catch me," Mary pleaded.
Her frail body cracked on impact with the concrete. She fractured her spine. She broke her right pelvis, her hip, left, right ankle and an elbow. She lacerated her face - "a multiple trauma," said a doctor at the Washington Hospital Center, "but lucky." She lived.
Andree Keels, who lived next door at 1713 Lamont St. NW, recalled running over to Mary to pull her away from falling cinders.
"All I could hear was glass breaking and screams coming from those trapped in the back of the house. It was horrible," she said.
By 3 a.m. the fire was out, and the survivors collected in a small living room in the undamaged half of the large duplex next door. Some appeared dazed as they slumped quietly on coches, wrapped in blankets provided by neighbors.
One woman, her hand charred black, set motionless with a blank stare on her face. When blisters began to appear, she asked a roommate, "What happened?"
"The first thing I noticed was how emotionless everybody was after the fire," recalled Karin Sheire, who brought over the blankets. "The woman with the blisters showed no pain. Some were out in the cold with nightgowns on. They were slow to react," she said.
When the roll was called, 15 names went unanswered. Some of the survivors began to weep.
"We've already been through so much," one woman said later. "But this hurts."
Denise Hilton, the resident manager, walked quietly around the room, taking the toll. "It went so quick," she said later. "There just wasn't time. There wasn't anything we could do."
Yesterday, as fire inspectors poked through the charred building, Police St. Albert Yeager recalled the Lamont Street outpatients as "just lovely old ladies" who "loved their cigarettes."
In winter of summer, rain or shine, said he and various neighbors, they could be seen seated on porches and lawns, a can of cigarette butts at their feet, puffing their days away.
During the months before the 1977 Cinema Follies fire, in which nine persons were killed, other incidents had occured at the foster home to prompt former resident manager Emma Taylor ot prohibit smoking indoors, according to residents.
The elderly patients were sometimes forgetful and careless with their cigarettes. Some would smoke an entire cigarette without touching it with their hands after lighting it, letting ashes fall where they would.
Another resident "used to smoke in the closet," one patient said yesterday. "She goes in there and I would see smoke coming out and it scared me."
Under new management, however, residents were allowed to smoke in the designated smoking room - any time of day or night.
"Grace would be the only one up the late smoking," another resident said "You come in [the smoking room] and there she is asleep in her chair with a lit cigarette hanging out [her mouth]."
Yesterday as survivors and patients milled around on the ground floor in the undamaged portion of the building, a homicide detective on the scene asked for the survivor who had started the fire.
"She's upstairs," a resident volunteered, 'And she ain't smoking now." CAPTION: Picture 1, A.D.C. fireman mounts charred steps in central hall of the home at 1715 Lamont St. NW where fire killed nine mental hospital outpatients. By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post; Picture 2, A fireman lends assistance at survivors walk to van that took them ot St. Elizabeths for the night. By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Two survivors of fire at foster care house for mental outpatients walk toward van for trip to St. Elizabeths. By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post, Picture 4, Ceiling, walls, floors are charred in living room of home where fire killed nine.By James A. Parcel - The Washington Post