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Billie Johnson could see a throng of neighbors gathering in front of the apartment next door, their necks craned up toward the second floor, their cell phones fixed to their ears. After she walked outside, she could see the smoke pouring from her neighbor’s bedroom window.

Not until she asked around the crowd did Johnson realize that none of the cell-phone carriers had the fire department on the line. They were just describing the scene to friends. “They were basically giving a blow-by-blow,” Johnson says. “As if it was some kind of show.”

Still, she wasn’t sure if there was an actual fire. She figured the air-conditioning unit sitting in the frame had overheated and started smoking. As her brother Michael Johnson went to bang on the front door, Johnson walked around back and saw smoke billowing out of one of the rear windows. “That’s when I knew it was a fire,” she says. “We didn’t think anyone was in there, but we didn’t know. Their cars weren’t out front, so we figured they weren’t around.” She decided to call the fire department.

Wandora Anderson and her three sons—Irvin, Elijah, and Antowan Thorne—were spending the afternoon with Anderson’s mother when firefighters arrived at their Southwest home near Waterfront. The apartment manager called Anderson at her mother’s house and told her their home was on fire.

Anderson left her sons at their grandmother’s and headed home; when she got there, the firefighters were gone but neighbors were milling about the lawn, assessing the damage. There was a gaping, black-rimmed hole where Irvin’s windows used to be. Below, on the ground, were the air-conditioning unit and a partially melted box fan.

“I’ve never had anything happen like this before,” Anderson says, standing near the scorched wall in 29-year-old Irvin’s room. Fire damage has revealed an earlier coat of pink paint. “I was worried [when I got the call]. It’s where I lay my head at.”

The blaze apparently started in the corner near Irvin’s bed, spreading along one wall and onto the ceiling. Investigators say they believe the fire was caused by an unattended incense candle. The fire did not extend beyond the bedroom.

Anderson says she and her sons had been out of the house since 9 a.m. If a lit candle had been left behind, she insists, the fire would have broken out early in the day rather than in late afternoon. Michael Johnson, who has lived in the row of connected two-story apartments since the ’70s, says that Anderson’s apartment has had a rash of problems over the years, from burst water pipes to an earlier fire at the electrical box.

The building seems afflicted by bad luck, says Michael Johnson, who works at the VA Medical Center near Columbia Heights. “I’ve been watching families come in and out of here,” Johnson says. “This house always has problems.”

The only real casualties were Irvin’s bed and his DVD collection. The partly melted cases now lie amid a scattering of broken glass beneath the boarded-up windows. Dr. Dolittle 2 apparently got the worst of it, the plastic case melted like black wax.

Anderson and her sons, who have lived at the apartment since 1986, spent the night after the fire at a nearby hotel. Until the second floor is cleaned and repaired, they’ll be splitting up and living with relatives. “If they tell me I can, I’ll live here,” says Anderson. “But it’s smoky up here.” CP