It started, family members said, with a tiny candle burning on the wall of the bedroom where the 10-month-old boy wouldn't sleep in the dark. The power company had shut off electricity the previous week, and a request for city assistance became stuck in the bureaucracy.
Jenna Dougherty was sitting with friends on a balcony behind the burning apartment early yesterday morning when she saw a cloud of black smoke and heard a baby cry. She and her friends called the fire department, but they couldn't report the exact location because they were all students in town for the antiwar march and had no sense of local geography. They could only describe where they were.
The students scrambled down the two-story balcony and raced to the Columbia Heights apartment building across the alley to try to rush in and help. But they could not enter at first because they did not know the security code, and the residents screaming from the balcony of the burning building spoke Spanish.
More than 40 D.C. firefighters and emergency medical workers raced to the brick apartment building on Columbia Road NW after the 911 calls came in about 3:15 a.m., lifted ladders to the balcony and brought down three children and an 83-year-old great-grandmother. But the baby, who had been crying from his crib, died before rescuers could reach his severely burned body.
"The flames were licking out over the top of the rescuers while they were removing the people," said D.C. 4th Battalion Chief Gary Palmer.
The baby's mother, Fritzie Flores, 20, was not among the four people firefighters rescued from the blaze and sent to hospitals.
She and her mother, Maria Vasquez, 40, were with friends several blocks away, having left their apartment at 13th Street and Columbia Road at 10 p.m. A neighbor who saw the rescue unfold ran to find Flores and tell her that the apartment was on fire and that the children had been taken to the hospital.
Flores had asked her 83-year-old grandmother, Zoila Vasquez, who lived in a nearby apartment, to come over and watch her 10-month-old baby, Jonah. She also had left her 2-year-old boy, Jaleed, in the dark two-bedroom apartment. Zoila Vasquez was looking after two other children: 12-year-old Danitza and 4-year-old Eliza, both daughters of Maria Vasquez.
Before Flores and her mother went out for the night, Flores lighted a candle on the wall of Jonah's bedroom. "He was afraid of the dark," she said.
Authorities turned off the electricity in the apartment, which is rented by Maria Vasquez, on Monday. Vasquez, who had been in the hospital, had not paid a $491 electric bill, according to family members.
The manager of the apartment complex sent a letter to Vasquez, threatening to evict her and her family unless they were able to get their electricity turned back on. He recommended she go to the nearby D.C. Energy Office, which can give low-income residents assistance with their electric bills, according to D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Northwest Washington and plans to investigate what happened.
Flores said she brought her bills to the energy office at the Reeves Municipal Center on 14th Street, applied for city assistance and was told by an official that the family's electricity would be turned on within 48 hours.
Richard Kirby, the chief of the D.C. energy assistance division, said that the city had provided $721 in emergency assistance to the family earlier this year.
After checking his records late last night, Kirby said that on Tuesday, Flores applied for assistance to get the power restored. On Wednesday, he said, an emergency coordinator from his office called Pepco to verify that the power was off in the apartment. After Pepco verified the information, the D.C. official then was required to give a supervisor the paperwork to approve emergency funds.
Kirby was the supervisor who received the paperwork, but not until the end of the day Thursday. He approved up to $400 to be sent to Pepco for Vasquez and left the paperwork in the city official's drawer Friday morning for her to call Pepco. But the official did not come into work Friday, Kirby said. Nor did Kirby's deputy or his second emergency coordinator.
"The sign-off papers are still sitting in the drawer," said Kirby, who found them at 9:45 p.m. last night.
Kirby said that even if city officials had been able to call Pepco, it would not have guaranteed that the power would have been turned on over the weekend.
"We can only tell Pepco, which is a private business, that we can commit a certain amount of money, and then it is up to Pepco to reconnect the service," Kirby said.
Earlier in the evening, a Pepco spokeswoman said that company policy prohibited her from discussing a customer's case.
"The last thing we want to do is cut off power to anyone," said Debbi Jarvis, the Pepco spokeswoman. "Our hearts go out to the family, and we will be working with the authorities to investigate what happened."
The official cause of the fire has not been determined, said Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman, but fire investigators had been told that a candle was left burning in the apartment. Fire officials estimated the blaze caused more than $75,000 in damage.
Zoila Vasquez, who was sleeping in the living room when the fire broke out, was treated for minor injuries and released to her home on Park Road NW. She said she was thankful to be alive but distraught that she couldn't save her great-grandchild.
"The smoke was too thick, and the flames were coming out the window," Vasquez said.
Yesterday afternoon, Flores, a student at the Carlos Rosario International School, huddled with her relatives and friends outside the charred apartment.
Her toddler and Vasquez's two children, who were rescued from the apartment, have been temporarily taken into custody by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, according to a police spokesman.
"What did I do to deserve this?" Flores, her eyes filled with tears, said yesterday.