Friends and neighbors of James and Annie Mae Williams, some still in their nightclothes, milled about yesterday afternoon and stared at the stark reminder of the fiery Thanksgiving Day that turned into tragedy beyond comprehension.
The Williamses' green-and-white frame home, where nearly a whole generation of the family perished in a morning fire, was filled only with ash and charred rubble. In the back yard, sheets flapped on a clothesline and cars were parked on the grass. Overhead, the second story of the house looked as though a small explosion had blasted through the aluminum siding.
Six children, who had nicknames such as "Piggie" and "Peepee," were gone.
While their family gathered in grief outside the emergency room at Prince George's Hospital Center awaiting word on the survivors, friends and neighbors clustered on porches and in yards, nervously recalling the fire as they watched inspectors search for its cause.
Gloria Roots, who lives next door to the Williams home, sat on her porch and remembered what she had seen: her panicked neighbors jumping from the windows of their burning house on 69th Street in Seat Pleasant.
"I wish I could cry," the 47-year-old woman said. "I feel like it, but there's just something in me so tight. I just feel like screaming."
Claradean McClaine, 43, also saw the spectacle and helped get the two surviving children, Samuel and James Q.R. (Crudifee) Williams, ages 2 and 4, away from the burning house.
Well into the day, McClaine continued to cry. She said she was in her kitchen cooking turkey, cornish hens and greens at 8 a.m. when flames next door caught her eye. She said she ran to the house and saw James Williams, 52, outside and breaking through a first-floor window. Other adults later jumped from that window, McClaine said.
"Some of them were nude," she said. "I grabbed some sheets off the clothes line."
Lisa Holmes, 19, watched the blaze from her house across the street. "Flames were coming out of everywhere, back and front," she said. "There was nothing you could do, just look at it."
The fire scene, McClaine said, was wrenching. The family was "all in the back yard on the ground. The father was in shock and the mother was crying, 'My babies, my babies.' " Family members about to be taken to the hospital for treatment "kept jumping out of ambulances. It was just crazy," she said.
Neighbors who saw the fire, including McClaine, were "just feeling sad and crying like it was their own," she said. "It's just unbelievable. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, but six babies? Six babies?"
The children, according to neighbors, were rambunctious.
"It's going to be so lonely around here because they usually keep this street running, the way they play around, just the action, the noise, the crying, the screaming, beating on each other, calling names," said Holmes, recalling the children in the Williams family.
Many of the adults on the block said that children are the glue that helps bring them together. Although some of the adults may not get along, the children all played together. The death of any one child is tragic, they said, but six deaths are incomprehensible.
"Seems like it brought everything to a standstill," said William H. Butler Jr., 50, whose yard abuts the Williamses' and who has known them for 17 years. "You know, you see those little kids out there playing every day, playing with him," he said, pointing to his 6-year-old grandson Marcus. "It makes you wonder why something like this happens."
At the hospital, family members wept and waited most of the afternoon, shouting questions none of them could answer. "Lord, why did you take those babies?" an aunt screamed, her whole body trembling. "They just can't be gone."
Some relatives trudged in and out of the emergency room, visiting those who were in the house when the fire started. Others slumped in a quiet hospital hall, hiding their faces in their hands, or whispering reassurances to one another.
Michelle Butler, who lives next door to the Williamses, paced nervously outside the emergency room, trying to console an aunt of some of the dead children. The woman kept repeating that she had to be taken back to the burned home because children were still inside and that she had to save them. "The children aren't there," Butler said softly, hugging the woman. "But they'll be okay where they are now."
A few minutes later, Butler walked outside the hospital and stood alone on the sidewalk, admitting she did not have much strength left. "This is too unbelievable to even stop and think about," she said. "I woke up and came running out of the house this morning when I heard what happened. And all I saw was all those flames. People were running everywhere. And I just stopped for a second and thought, 'This has got to be a dream, this can't be happening.' All those poor kids inside."
Shortly after noon, Bishop Joseph Whitfield of the Light House Pentecostal Church in Seat Pleasant walked quickly through the emergency room entrance, clutching a bible with bookmarks noting passages he had selected to ease family members' grief.
Whitfield, who lives in the neighborhood where the fire occurred, met privately with family members for about two hours. He said afterward that he had read from Chapter 10 of St. Mark's Gospel: " . . . and they shall receive in hundredfold now in this time, brethren, and sisters, and mothers and children . . . and in the world to come, eternal life."
"They were all together simply to celebrate Thanksgiving as a family, and now they have lost everything," Whitfield said as he left the emergency room. "They need so much support, because they can't accept that six of their children are gone. I told them they must give each other strength, and that the Lord and this community will provide for them."
An uncle peered briefly through the small windows of the emergency room doors as Whitfield spoke, then walked back to an empty hall and pounded his fist against a wall. "Justin was my man," he said to himself, referring to his 4-year-old nephew who died in the fire. "Damn, he was something else."
A neighbor and an aunt joined the uncle in the hall, and began swapping stories about the joy the children had brought to their lives. Nathaniel, a baby who died, was just learning to mimic family members' names, the aunt said. "Finally," she added with a quivering smile.
Nathaniel's twin brother Emanuel, who also died, was beginning to learn to walk, another relative said. Family members who were in the house at the time of the fire, and suffered smoke inhalation, were treated at the hospital and released in the early evening. Some of them walked to their cars in hospital gowns. All of their clothes had been burned.
"With all those kids, I was just starting to have my own little football team," the uncle said. "Now, there's no one left."