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When Richard Winfield awoke to see thick black smoke in his bedroom, he was pretty sure he was dreaming. It had been less than six days since his Congress Heights apartment building had caught fire, and he’d been having trouble sleeping at night. He’d managed to doze off but soon found himself struggling to wake from a nightmare.
It wasn’t until he’d leapt out of bed that he understood this fire was real, too: “I was thinking, This isn’t happening. It already happened. I’ve got to wake up.”
Winfield lives on the top floor of the three-story building. The fire was on the second floor. He tried to head down the stairs, but he was forced back into his apartment by the heat and smoke. In a panic, he bolted to his living room window, kicked the screen out, and looked down three stories to the ground. The tenants who had already evacuated the building were screaming for him to get out. “It was just too high to jump,” he says.
So Winfield went back to the stairwell, wrapped a shirt over his face, and blindly ran down. He tripped and cut his nose on a railing, but he made it outside.
When discussing the fires, neither of which resulted in major injuries, tenants speak in a tone somewhere between resignation and disgust. “The second time, man!” says Winfield, much of whose apartment is veiled with soot and filled with the rank smell of scorched drywall.
The building is a nondescript brick one, occupied by Winfield and four other Section 8 tenants. It lies on the edge of a well-kept community in Southeast, its overgrown lawn and bland architecture an exception in the neighborhood. A row of abandoned cars sits out front, each with a sticker on the driver-side window warning that the vehicle may be towed.
Neighbors say that the local kids hang out by the cars and sometimes go inside the building to smoke pot in the basement and the hallways. The first fire started in the basement, the second in an open, unoccupied apartment. Both began in piles of trash and mattresses, but neither has been attributed to a definite cause yet.
“It’s almost like it’s OK,” says Winfield, a community-outreach worker near Capitol Hill. “As long as it’s in this building, no one is gonna do anything about it. The building fell on hard times, so to hell with it. People don’t say anything.”
Emergency calls have been so common at the building that Dennis Washington, who lives on the top floor across the hall from Winfield, greeted firefighters with a show of hostility at the last fire. When rescuers reached his apartment, directly above the source of the blaze, a trapped and confused Washington told them he was sick of his door being broken down.
“After they kicked the doors down the last time, we had to fix our own locks,” says Washington, who suffered minor burns on his legs and chest when escaping from the building. To make the repair, Washington says, he took the door of the abandoned second-floor apartment off its hinges and installed it in his own frame. CP