Monday, October 5, 2009

Washington Social Diary

Fire trucks filled the length of the block in Georgetown.
A Fatal Fire
by Carol Joynt

Georgetown’s reputation often veers toward uppity, elitist and cold, but that’s not my Georgetown, which is intimate and friendly, a real neighborhood, or so I thought. On my block I could walk you by every house and likely tell you something about the home or the occupants or both.

There’s the cellist, the White House civil servant, the National Geographic executive, a former Clinton Administration official, the house where the husband flung plaster in the wife’s face. I know, because she banged on my door and asked me to take a picture. Her divorce lawyer lives on the block, too, and her husband is a prominent radiologist. There’s a psychiatrist, two British women, married to Americans, and one industrial heir.

The fire, when it was first noticed.
The fire, at its peak.
There’s the house with the college students, the two apparent rent boys in an English basement, a couple of respected doctors, the corporate web consultant, the very rich couple in the big house, the Rabbi and his busy family, an economist, at least a few lawyers, the beautiful Iranian intellect married to the Italian professor, the author of a guide to DC parenting, the house whose owner ran the Mafia desk at Justice, lived with a fierce German Shepard, but who gave up the job and moved away, and our newest neighbor, the daughter of a notorious former presidential candidate.

My neighbors and I can tell you who works at home, who doesn’t, how often we come and go, who has children, who doesn’t, and who parks with courtesy and who doesn’t.

But, shockingly, what many of us couldn’t do was tell Fire Department detectives on Friday the name of the woman who died in a house fire that afternoon. It struck us dumb that her home was in the middle of our block, we saw her occasionally, we knew she was elderly, virtually a shut in, seemingly eccentric, but we didn’t know her name, or of her family or anything about her that could help the investigators. It was the saddest component of a catastrophically sad day.

It was mid-afternoon when I heard people outside shout “fire, fire” in strident voices that indicated something deadly serious. I ran outside and looked across the street. A dark plume of smoke roiled from this woman’s house. It got thicker and darker by the second. I ran back inside and called 911, who said, “trucks are on the way.” In the precious minutes before they arrived, the Rabbi and his family shouted up at the house, hoping the woman would hear and come out. Someone kicked in the front door, but there was too much smoke to risk going in. Just above the roof I could see the first licks of flame within the black plume.

The fire trucks arrived. Not one or two, but more like eight or ten, including two hook and ladder. They filled our block and beyond. People in the street yelled “there’s a woman inside.” With breathtaking speed the firefighters tore into the house, hooked up hoses and pulled them in, too, and smashed out windows. The ladders were quickly extended to the rooftops, of her house and a house a few doors down. All the houses on that side of the street are attached. Firefighters scrambled over the rooftops.

Naturally, a crowd gathered. It included my neighbors, people from adjacent blocks, a representative of the Mayor’s office, commissioners from the neighborhood advisory board, the rector of the nearby Episcopal church. And this is what we asked each other: “Do you know her name?” No one, at least initially, did.
The fire department responded quickly, and got the fire under control.
A second ladder truck sent firefighters scrambling across rooftops.
The firemen quickly got the blaze under control. The black plume was reduced to small whiffs of white smoke. When a gurney rolled up we were hopeful, but when the gurney was never taken inside, our hope faded. Then one of the community leaders, returning from a conversation with a fire official, said, “they found her but she is dead.” He said the speculation was cigarette smoking.

The local TV crews began to arrive, but no one wanted to talk to them, at least among residents of the block. We were in shock about our neighbor’s death, the neighbor we didn’t know.

There was a knock on my door. It was a woman detective. I invited her in. Could I help in any way to figure out the woman’s identity? I told her what little I knew. That in all my years living here, I encountered the woman maybe a dozen or more times. She rarely left her home and only then remained in a small perimeter. I never saw anyone else come or go from the house.
Heading up to the rooftops.
“Did she talk to you?” Occasionally, I said. She was always in her housecoat. Once she yelled at me for parking in a “no parking” spot. I told her I lived across the street and it was a pit stop. She slipped a note of apology in my mail slot. I wrote her back saying no apology was necessary. If I was out front gardening, she might stop by to talk about the plants, or to ask if I knew what was going on with one city service or another.

Still, I didn’t know her name.

After the detective departed, a neighbor called. She’d talked to a friend a block over who knew the woman. She told me the name. “She’s a widow. Her husband died of pancreatic cancer a dozen years ago. She’s agoraphobic.” A second knock at my door. A man from another block. He gave me the same name. “I used to walk her if she needed to go somewhere. She has children. Her daughter writes for The New York Times.” I said, “You need to find the detectives. You need to tell them this. They have no idea who she is.”
Hoping the gurney would be needed.
I posted some photos and information on my neighborhood blog, but the next day got an email from someone identified only as “pimiento6.”

It said, “My good friend's mother is the woman who died in the fatal fire on O street yesterday ... Your site has explicit information about her mom - it might not seem explicit to you, but to a woman who just found out that her mom died in a horrible fire, the information is awful. As her friend I am asking that you remove the pictures and the information as the family hasn't even made it down to DC yet to take care of things as they deal with grief and shock.”

Fair enough. I’m a writer, not TMZ. I took down the post.
A firefighter enters the house where the fire occurred.
The day after the fire the busted windows were boarded up. The police tape was torn down and in little piles here and there. People stopped, stood and stared for a moment before moving on. Teams from the fire department went house-to-house, offering to install free smoke detectors.

In the evening, I stopped at a local wine shop. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had been there to ask questions. “They said the woman’s blood had a high alcohol content and they wanted to know if we’d made a delivery to her. Some store had made a delivery and they want to find the store. It wasn’t us.” I asked, “What was the delivery?” Champagne.

A woman who knows the family said, “she died from natural causes and the cigarette she was smoking in the dining room started the fire.”

As I walked home from the wine shop, I passed her house, standing in shadows. A man was in the middle of the empty street, staring up. “Did you know her?” I asked. “No,” he said, “but I’m thinking of her.” Me, too, and wondering with grief how it might have been different had I, and my neighbors, known all these things about her before the fire.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: caroljoynt.com.