We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Darlean White was washing her car in the alley behind her row house when the home four doors down exploded. “I heard this big boom come out,” she recalls. “I looked around, and it had blown the whole back of the house off.”

White ran toward the black smoke pouring from 7107 Georgia Ave. “The fire was already in the basement,” she says. “Then a small pop came, and the fire flamed up the whole house.” The fire was intense and moved quickly. White called 911, as did several neighbors.

The nearest D.C. fire station, Engine 22, is 1.2 miles down Georgia Avenue. Walter Reed Army Medical Center, directly across from the fire site, has a firefighting team of its own. Walter Reed’s crew will go into action outside the complex if the District makes a formal request, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesperson Alan Etter says. But in this case, he says, the special phone line between Walter Reed and the DCFD didn’t work.

The flames spread to adjoining houses as neighbors waited impatiently for the District crews to show up. “When I called [911], they told me they dispatched a truck a long time ago,” says Sadie Johnson, whose house sits across the alley from the burning row. “They seemed to be aggravated because so many of us were calling….They said, ‘We’re coming! We’re coming!’ and I said, ‘Well, c’mon then!’”

Johnson feared that engines wouldn’t arrive before the fire got to 7101. Behind that house, a garage holds an exterminator’s stockpile of insect poisons. “I hate to think what could have happened if those chemicals had caught fire,” she says.

Meanwhile, White had smelled something familiar in the smoky air. “Lady, you better get your children out of the house!” she yelled. “This is gas!” A woman wearing no shoes or pants ran out of 7103, then back in to find her grandchild.

Johnson stood in her kitchen and watched the fire eat its way through 7107’s roof. By the time she heard sirens, four houses were burning. The first engine did not impress Johnson with its size. “The little hoses they had on that truck, the water was no more than would come out of my garden hose,” she says.

The fire was spreading along the houses’ wooden back porches. “We could see the smoke, and we were 20 blocks away,” says 4th Battalion Chief Frank Tremmel. “Anything that could burn [in 7107] was burning when we arrived.”

It took about 30 minutes to tame the blaze, Tremmel says. Both 7107 and 7109 were completely carbonized, with floors burnt through and extensive damage toward the back. The upper floors of 7105 were badly burned, while 7103 remains habitable with damage to its rear. At the height of the action, nearly 120 fire and EMS personnel were on the scene. The DCFD and insurance companies have yet to complete an investigation of the fire’s cause.

Neighbor Alpha McPherson and local churches have started a fund for eight displaced people. The houses were built in the 1920s, says McPherson: “They’re solid and sturdy, but the wood is dry….When a fire hits these homes, you got to move very quickly.”

Etter says firefighters arrived within two minutes of dispatch. Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty speculates that flawed communications slowed this dispatch. “Everyone knows our communications center is performing very badly right now,” he says. “I’m sure once [firefighters] got the call, they were there.” —John Metcalfe