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Zachary Stokes encountered his first fire just over a decade ago, in his Columbia Heights apartment building.

Residents were scared to carry their trash outside, says the now-42-year-old insulation worker, so they threw it into the building’s stairwell. One day, somebody set the rotting piles on fire. While people frantically packed their belongings, Stokes filled a bucket with water and poured it into the flaming garbage. But it wasn’t enough; the fire burned through the roof and destroyed the building. “If people had gotten together on that,” Stokes says angrily, “you could have put that fire out.”

After the trash fire, Stokes and his mother, 69-year-old Mary Stokes, moved into their current building in Adams Morgan—he into Apartment 204, and she across the hall into 206. Two years ago, says Mary Stokes, the building filled with smoke when a fire broke out in a first-floor apartment. She was hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

Two weeks ago, while Stokes was in his mother’s apartment, the hall fire alarm rang again. The alarm frequently sounds in error, says Mary Stokes, and she “just took for granted that it was nothing.” But Stokes, who often unplugs his coffee maker and fan when he goes out of the house, needed to make sure. “I done seen some things that happened to people years and years ago where they got caught on fire and disfigured,” he says. “I can’t see myself get burnt up if it’s not necessary to get burnt up.”

When he opened the door, he saw that the hallway, normally two-toned cream and yellow, was pitch-black. A cloud of rolling smoke hung 3 feet above the floor, so thick that it obscured the ceiling lights. “It’s time to get out of here,” Stokes told his mother. “We got to go. Now, now.”

The smoke was coming from Apartment 201, pushing its way through the gap under the door. Stokes ran down the hall toward the fire. He couldn’t see anything and was breathing smoke; in his panic, he didn’t think to drop down and crawl.

Stokes hollered at the door of 201. He heard the woman who lived there calling back—but not from her own apartment, from one nearby. She ran outside and called 911 on her cell phone.

Stokes went inside the burning apartment, planning to tackle the fire, but he quickly lost his bearings. “The smoke was so thick, I couldn’t see nothing,” he says. “Only thing I could hear was some crackling.” He went back to his mother’s apartment, gave her a coat to put over her head, and walked her down the stairs and into fresh air. She was vomiting. It was her second bout with smoke inhalation.

Stokes went back to his room and grabbed two flashlights and a paper contractor’s mask. He went into 202 to try to evacuate an elderly man. But the air inside 202 was clear, unlike the hallway air. The neighbor slapped Stokes away and told him to keep his hands to himself, says Stokes, adding, “I guess he thought I was a crazy man.”

Stokes went back to 201 and made another attempt to put out the fire, but even with his flashlights he couldn’t see through the smoke. By then, firefighters had entered the building

with water hoses. With their thermal imagers, they had no problem finding and knocking down the fire, which had started when an unattended cooking pan caused kitchen cabinets to combust. “Just by the fire going upwards, it didn’t get a chance to go toward

the gas,” says Stokes. “You would’ve had an explosion if it got to the gas.”

Outside, says Stokes, a firefighter told him it was a mistake to “try to be a hero.” “Sometimes you ain’t got no choice,” says Stokes. Since his efforts in the smoky hallway, he has been coughing up blood. His neighbors have started calling him “Fire Marshal Bill.”

“They feel like I was overacting, but my mother knows I don’t play with no fire,” he says. “I done been there. And to me it’s not a joke.” CP