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Tonia Oakes, 26, was in the kitchen of Building 2A at the D.C. Village homeless shelter, chatting away the few minutes before bedtime with friends. She watched a woman in the hall walk up to Room 230, open the door, and then step back.

“We just see all this smoke and stuff rush out,” says Oakes. The woman in the hall, says Oakes, looked bewildered as smoke enveloped her.

In Room 226, the Wilsons were preparing for bed. Thomas, 44, was lying on his mattress in the single-bathroom, single-closet cinder-block room—his home for the past three months. His bronchitis was acting up, and he hardly had the energy to walk. Tonya Wilson slipped in the door, her evening game of cards completed.

Then, Thomas heard two things simultaneously. An alarm sounded in the building, and footsteps and shouting reverberated down the hall. Beside him, Tonya thought somebody had pulled the alarm as a joke.

Oakes ran out of the kitchen and yelled at an evening hall monitor to unlock the building’s back door. She then joined other monitors in rousing the shelter’s residents. “[I was] screaming up and down the hall that this wasn’t no fake fire, ’cause that’s what most people thought,” says Oakes. “It was mad smoke by the time I got finished.”

The woman in 231, who goes by “Shorty” while she’s in the shelter, had scarcely put her head on her pillow when the noise started. “[People] started bammin’ on the doors,” she says. They were hollering, ‘Everybody come on out—it’s a real fire!’”

Shorty made a makeshift caravan—her six kids in front, herself in the middle, and her husband bringing up the rear—and moved into the hallway. Flames were licking out of 230’s door. “It was just shooting out, like, whoosh!” she says. “And then things started popping in the ceiling, and we were right next door.”

Shorty’s family train followed monitors out one of the shelter’s exits. On the way, she passed the Wilsons, who were moving about in the thick black smoke, picking up children. The residents had no trouble organizing themselves outside. It was almost like the standard fire drill, or the week before, when a microwave malfunctioned and spewed out smoke. They gathered in the parking lot by the hill, ordered according to living sections.

A woman called 911 on her cell phone. Around 25 families waited in the freezing air in their nightclothes, shivering, many barefoot. Monitors hustled children into their cars and turned on the heat. “When you have as many families as you do here, it could be chaotic; it could be hazardous, disorganized,” says Thomas. “And in this case, it was none of that.”

“[The fire] was meeting us in the hallway when we got there,” says Capt. Robert McClafferty of Engine 33, the first unit on the scene. The smoke was “medium,” in firefighter’s terms—heavy enough, McClafferty says, that civilians “would have probably been freaking out.” The fire was concentrated in 230’s closet, and probably originated, says Department of Human Services spokesperson Debra Daniels, with a boy playing with matches.

McClafferty and his fighters hit the fire with water hoses, pushing it back through the room’s broken windows. Mattresses were burning: They had either caught flame from the closet’s roving blaze or combusted spontaneously in the superheated air.

The crowd outside didn’t get to sleep until 5:30 a.m., and when they did, it was in the shelter’s gym. The hallway and residents’ possessions in surrounding rooms were coated with soot. Shelter officials say the families were eventually relocated to Building 3A, or moved out of the shelter into transitional housing or the houses of friends and relatives. “It’s sad to say,” Tonya Wilson says, “but it helped to push” families into outside housing. CP