Early Friday morning, October 17,1 got a telephone call: 1301 Fairmont Street, a building I had just begun working in as a tenant organizer, was on fire. Leaving breakfast still to be made, I ran up the block toward the building, guided by the thick black smoke that rolled from all its windows.
The next several chaotic hours I remember as a disjointed series of vividly drawn vignettes. A fireman carried a smoke-blackened 3-year-old from the building and sat him down. When the boy began shivering from cold and shock, I lifted him into my arms and looked for his mother. After half an hour we found her, writhing on a stretcher with the terrible pain that smoke inhalation causes.
A teenage boy was wandering in a daze; he had fallen from a third-story window and hit the ground head downward, breaking his arm, jaw, and nose. Last of all, firemen brought out 65-year-old Elsie Dailey, who has only one leg. She had tried to escape down the stairs from her second-floor apartment, but the fire's heat and smoke drove her back. She then attempted to open a window onto the fire escape, but her windows were all stuck shut. She was struggling to crawl under her bed when firemen found her.
A total of five residents of 1301 Fairmont were hospitalized because of the fire, and seven families were suddenly without a home.
From the moment I saw the fire, my concern was mixed with anger at the building's owner, a corporation called Rental Associates, Inc. I had recently begun organizing in four buildings all within a block of each other in our Columbia Heights neighborhood and owned by Rental Associates. All four buildings are large rowhouses that in the 1930s and '40s were converted into apartments--the kind of buildings most rapidly turning over to upper-middle-income whites as Washington, D.C.'s wave of rampant gentrification washes through our neighborhood.