Fire investigators searched the icicle-hung shell of a fire ravaged apartment building at 1444 W St. NW yesterday. What they found, in a neighborhood better known for drugs and prostitutes, was a community.
While D.C. officials hunted up new housing for at least 34 families burned out of the aging, four-story building in a four-alarm fire Sunday night, a steady stream of good Samaritans struggled up the steps of nearby St. Augustine's Catholic Church with boxes and bags of food and clothes for the temporarily homeless.
The procession never stopped and rarely slowed. By late afternoon it had packed the church school gymnasium with replacement items -- winter coats, fleece-lined boots, bags of rice, wool sweaters, cans and cartons of milk, toothbrushes and even one bottle of Paris Night champagne bubble bath.
"We never expected anything like this," said the Rev. John Mudd, associate pastor of St. Augustine's. "People have come from everywhere."
"They've been coming from Virginia and Maryland, too," said Ella Williams, a Shiloh Baptist Church member struggling to stack clothes and shoes in some sort of order. "Black and white. Ain't no one color or denomination on this thing."
Dazed families from Haiti and El Salvador, new Americans among the dispossessed, wandered among the clothing-heaped tables, hesitant at first to take anything, not certain they could.
Bilingual church and social workers encouraged them. They left laden with plastic garbage bags filled with wool hats, corduroy jackets and shoes. But more clothing was coming in than was leaving.
Lozzie York, a member of St. Augustine's, quarterbacking the relief effort in the gym, said the community had showed its stuff Sunday night while the building was still in flames.
"People were going door to door collecting food and blankets," she said. "They were making soup and bringing it over. It was real cold. And some of those people had been chased out by the fire into the snow in their bare feet. Didn't even have time to get shoes. We had one old lady barefoot in her gown."
The blaze, which city fire officials said yesterday started with a supposedly dead match in a trash bag on the second floor and caused an estimated $300,000 damage, raced through the building so fast it produced some peculiar privations.
Though only one person was hospitalized with apparently minor injuries, "we had to call in some doctors because there were all these people whose medicine had burnt up," York said. "They were on medication and they needed it for the night."
Others huddled shivering in St. Augustine's hastily opened gym, their snow-chilled feet soaking in cold water to warm up while about 150 firemen and 50 pieces of fire equipment battled the flames just yards away.
Inez Perea, a woman in her thirties with a striking resemblance to Coretta Scott King, said she was ironing a shirt for her 15-year-old son, Miguel, in their $374-a-month, two bedroom apartment on the third floor when the fire broke out Sunday about 5:30 p.m.
"My son was in his room and he called to me, 'Mama, what are you cooking?' and I said, 'I am not cooking anything.' And he said 'But it smells so bad, like burning.' I went out toward his room and I smelled it, too. Then I looked in the bathroom. Flames were coming from the bathtub drain.
"I opened the door and the hall was filled with smoke and people running. We ran with them."
Yesterday she sat numbly among the clothing piles beneath the gym's basketball backboard, answering questions quietly, reluctantly, in a tone that hovered between despair and controlled rage.
Perea had come to this country 14 years ago from Panama, she said, with nothing and had worked since as a housekeeper in Northwest Washington. For the past five years, she has also been working a second job at night, cleaning office buildings at 18th and K streets NW, gradually getting a small economic foothold in America.
What had she lost?
"Everything!" she whispered, fiercely, tears welling in her eyes. "Everything!"
Perea was probably not the worst off or the best off of the former tenants -- just one among the estimated 100 persons rendered possessionless by 90 minutes of fire.
John Long, director of disaster services for the D.C. Red Cross, said the exact number of homeless remained unclear last night. Though 34 apartments were destroyed, he said, some may have contained more than one family. The Red Cross had found housing for 17 families in the Edgewood Terrace apartments in Northeast Washington, he said, and another 15 families, most Hispanic, were being housed in the Adams-Morgan area. Still others were stayng with friends. Those displaced by the fire included at least 37 children, he said, ranging from infants to teen-agers.
But they and others found hope at St. Augustine's, the District's oldest black Catholic church, which began helping people more than a century ago and was still at it yesterday.
The church had plenty of help. In midafternoon a white woman in a fur coat in an Oldsmobile with Virginia plates and a black man in a Ford from Maryland walked up the church steps, each laden with bags of clothing. They didn't know each other, or any of the homeless, and neither would give a name.
But they both said the same thing: "I thought they might be able to use this stuff. It was the least I could do."