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Maria Madison was watching the Redskins’ exhibition game against the Ravens in her friend’s van—a new, tricked-out ride with a television—when her attention started to wander. Her eyes drifted to the back of her apartment building, just across the street, and she saw flames roiling through a top-floor window.

“I thought, The fuck is that?” says Madison. She stepped out of the van and saw smoke pouring from the window.

Madison ran along 16th Street NE to the front of her two-story building on E Street. In her first-floor apartment, she snatched up her two kids and woke up housemate Alfred Holmes, who has little mobility because of a West Virginia coal-mining accident when he was young. (He lost the lower half of one leg, and the other went bum with poor circulation.) Madison, who lives with Holmes to help him get around, hustled him and her kids out of the building as the fire spread upstairs.

They made it outside with the other residents and watched as the top half of their building glowed. “It just burned and burned and burned,” says Madison. Smoke billowed from the upstairs windows.

“When we got there, there were lots of flames in the back of that place,” says Lt. L.A. Matthews of Truck No. 13. According to investigator Wesley Hamilton, the fire started when one of the upstairs tenants, who had no electricity, knocked over a candle she was using to light her back porch. The fire quickly spread to the porch of the adjacent apartment.

Madison, who had power in her own apartment, says the electricity company had cut off the tenants’ juice upstairs. “They didn’t pay their bills,” she says.

According to Hamilton, there was serious smoke damage to the upstairs apartments. Although the fire remained upstairs, water damage to the downstairs apartments has made them unlivable. The Red Cross put all of the tenants up in a Ramada Inn on New York Avenue NE.

“That’s the one thing I don’t like about this job,” says Matthews, who stuck around with his crew after engine companies finished putting out the fire. “I hate to see the families get displaced.”

For Holmes, displacement may not be such a bad thing. He says he’s sick of the neighborhood. “I ain’t coming back here,” he says, stopping by his sooty apartment three days after the fire to pick up some meds. He hopes the fire will be a watershed, perhaps even a boon.

He’s lived in D.C. for 20 years and believes his strip of E Street, between 16th and 17th, is one of the worst blocks in the city. His street, littered with papers and bottles, looks as if a parade has just passed through. “In my four years at this place, I’ve seen eight people killed in front of my house. Right in front by my steps.”

On the side of his building is a makeshift memorial. It has nothing to do with the fire. It’s a pile of teddy bears and empty champagne bottles commemorating a teen who was recently shot and killed around the corner. On the apartment’s brick wall, alongside graffiti, hangs a blue-and-white baseball T-shirt: “RIP Juan. BLACK CHILD EARLY.”

“I ain’t gonna miss it,” says Holmes, shaking his head as he drives off in his truck, with Madison, down 16th Street. CP