Shredded clothes waved in the trees outside the three-story Northwest row house where nine people died fiery deaths yesterday morning. Wisps of a pink nightgown fluttered in the icy breeze as utility workers shoveled dirt near a mound of charred debris.

Long before investigators arrived to remove a blackened water heater that was blamed for igniting the blaze in the basement of 1629 Irving St., a crowd of 30 Hispanic men talked among themselves, staring at the debris topped by a child's blackened stuffed bear, a broken ironing board and rolls of undamaged toilet paper.

Many were friends of the seven Salvadoran laborers who died in the early morning fire -- one of the worst in the city's history. Some were working with the victims as construction laborers on a remodeling project on Park Road.

The row house stands in the diverse and changing neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. Once a suburb of Washington, the neighborhood is a mosaic of large brick homes, ethnic grocery stores and carryout restaurants. Some of the homes have been maintained or renovated and are valued at $250,000 or more, while others have become boarding homes overcrowded with immigrant families from war-torn Central America or drought-stricken Ethiopia.

Most of the back yards in the 1600 block of Irving Street are heavily littered. Dozens of liquor bottles line the alley. Old mattresses, abandoned building materials and trash bags -- their contents spewed -- disfigure many of the yards.

The basement apartment where the fire started had long been known as a haven for homeless Salvadorans. Fire investigators said as many as 17 people had been in the basement Saturday night and early yesterday morning. A survivor, who showed investigators where every person was sleeping, said 10 people were living there.

One neighbor said the two women who died were well known in the neighborhood. "I see them all the time," said Norma Egoavil.

Mark Harrell, who lives in the basement apartment of the house next door, said "I heard a lot of banging in the next door apartment. There were so many flames; there was nothing I could do to really help."

A neighbor across the street, Jim Stentzel, at 1648 Irving St. NW, said the intense fire raged for at least an hour before firefighters could quell it.

"I heard popping noises and glass breaking and people screaming," he said. "By the time I got down, there was a fireball coming out of the front door . . . . All the bodies I saw coming out of the back door were fully clothed, as if they were sleeping in their clothes."

The magnitude of the tragedy was caused by overcrowding, which is a fact of life in this neighborhood. "We don't have any alternative," said Antonio Lazo, 23, who has lived in the city for six years. "Because of the political situation [in Central America], we had to leave our home. Where can we stay here but with our friends?"