We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Harry Carter had just sat down to watch the Sunday noon news in his first-floor apartment in Deanwood when someone started banging furiously at his door. He opened it quickly and recognized the baby sitter from the apartment upstairs. She was hysterical.

Listening as she spoke in a panic, Carter gathered that the 6-year-old boy under her care had set a closet on fire and was stuck inside it. The 45-year-old Carter—tall, wiry, and dreadlocked—grabbed the modest fire extinguisher from his living room and bounded up the set of stairs and into the second-floor apartment.

He could see through a thin veil of smoke to the open bedroom closet. Expecting to spot the boy, he instead saw a terrifying explosion of orange flames. As Carter would later learn from neighbors, the boy, who had been playing with matches, had made it out of the apartment and was watching the scene from across the street. Carter says he and another resident have had to take lighters and matches from the boy before.

Carter turned the extinguisher on the fire in an effort to contain it. He fought it until the smoke became unbearable. He then ran into the hallway and doubled over, his chest heaving.

Still clutching the extinguisher, he took a moment to gather himself and then re-entered the apartment. When he made it to the bedroom, he found a more formidable blaze. He watched as the fire climbed the wall and raced across the ceiling—telltale signs that the room had undergone what fire experts term “flashover.” “It was like the fire came alive and looked at me like I was a joke,” says Carter.

He attacked the growing fire with the extinguisher a second time until he was choking again, this time more severely. He remembers hearing the smoke alarm go off. The heat pressed on his face and arms. Starving for cool air, he says, he ran at the living-room window and lowered his shoulder into it. It cracked but didn’t shatter. He managed to raise the window, kick out the screen, and hang himself out the opening from the waist up.

Directly above him, Shameka Harris and Donnell Petty, whose apartment had filled with smoke, were likewise hanging out of the third-floor windows.

Once he could breathe again, Carter left the window and sprinted down the stairs to his apartment. He woke his girlfriend, Jonnetta Borum, and his 11-year-old daughter, Natasha. As firefighters were arriving, the three ran out of the building and onto the lawn, where Carter, who was later treated for smoke inhalation, says he collapsed to the ground and pulled long strands of black mucus from his mouth and nose.

As they pulled up, members of Engine 30 could see Harris and Petty hanging from the top windows. “At first we thought the fire was on the third floor, the way the smoke was issuing from behind them,” says Capt. Ken Crosswhite. Firefighters urged them not to jump. Once the ladder truck arrived, firefighters rescued at least five people, taking them either down the stairs or through the windows with the ladder. There were no fatalities in the blaze.

According to Crosswhite, firefighters found two spent extinguishers in the building. One was likely used by the baby sitter, whom residents have not seen since the fire.

“Those extinguishers are so small,” says Carter, who practiced fire drills regularly when he was in the Navy during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “If I had, like, three or four of them, I really think I could have stopped it.” CP