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Through the years, the people at 221 Rhode Island Ave. came and went anonymously, without paying rent or mortgage. The row house is typical of this part of Eckington—unlisted number, undifferentiated architecture, and residents left and right unaware of who the occupants are or what they’re up to. “In the big city,” says a neighbor who goes only by his last name, Short, “you try to be courteous, and you leave it there.”

Sometime Monday morning, though, the eroded wiring in the second-floor ceiling of 221 coughed up sparks. The fire burned quietly in the cockloft—the narrow space between ceiling and roof—finding fuel in dry insulation and attic beams.

Short, who lives in 223, says he had just returned from a trip to Safeway. He parked across the street, picked his way through the traffic of Rhode Island Avenue—which doubles as U.S. Route 1—and entered his house.

He set down his groceries and tapped the play button on his answering machine. At that moment, there was pounding at his front door. Outside was a young man he had never seen before, a trucker whose 18-wheeler was parked outside.

“He’s kicking the door like he’s trying to kick it in,” says Short. “I open it, and he says, ‘Listen, man, you got to get out. There’s a fire.’ I’m like, ‘Cool, man.’”

Short picked up his hat and walked out into the front yard. “Sure enough,” he says, “the house next door, there’s smoke coming out of it like a chimney.” Another truck driving past pulled a U-turn and came racing back. Its driver and passenger hopped out to join the first trucker. In concert, the truckers began to bang and kick on other doors down the block.

Alarmed residents and passers-by gathered outside. A fire engine pulled up to the curb. While the firefighters unloaded their equipment, people finally began to trickle through 221’s front door. The roof above them was by now churning out flame, but none of them seemed to notice. “They were very slow coming out,” says Short. “We’re like, ‘C’mon out, y’all, there’s a fire going on!’ They’re like, ‘Where?’”

The fire had exhausted the combustibles in the cockloft, and was just beginning to devour the entire top of the house, when fighters pulled down the second-floor ceilings with hooks. Other fighters, perched on ladders outside, hacked holes into the roof with axes and chain saws. With the fire exposed from two sides, the crew quickly snuffed it with water hoses.

The occupants of 221, whom Red Cross caseworker Phil Love identifies as squatters, milled around on the sidewalk. “It was cold, and they wanted to get back in as soon as possible,” says firefighting technician Paul Quigley.

The Red Cross provides financial and material assistance to rent-paying fire victims, says Red Cross spokesperson Courtney Prebich, but it refers squatters to the city’s shelters. Since the fire, a large padlock has appeared on the door of 221. The house’s ad hoc residents have packed their things in boxes and plastic bags and moved on.

Neighbors have no idea where they went. “People come and go so quick, you don’t really make firm [connections] with them,” says Short. “You don’t have time to get to know people like you should.” —John Metcalfe