Joyce Olinger was on the phone with her son David in Manassas, Christmas night, when police came to his door and told him his brother Danny, 31 — her other son — was dead.
A small fire had broken out, that evening, in Danny's Centreville apartment and, from all indications, it seems as if smoke inhalation took his life while he slept.
"It's like a nightmare," said Olinger, 66, of Lemont, Ill. "It's the last thing in the world you'd ever expect; you always want to go before your kids."
Daniel Todd Olinger lived at 6417 Paddington Court in the Lee Overlook community off Route 29 and Stone Road. Firefighters responded to a sprinkler alarm there, shortly after 6 p.m. The water had already extinguished the fire in Olinger's living room by then, but rescue personnel found him dead on a couch.
Fairfax County police spokeswoman Jacqui Smith said his body showed "no obvious signs of trauma." An autopsy was performed, but Smith said it could take a month for the blood-toxicology report to come back.
Fire Capt. Lorenzo Thrower said the cause of the fire was a candle that burned a coffee table. However, he said the fire itself had "nothing to do" with Olinger's death. Olinger's parents immediately flew to Virginia and learned that their son was on his back, on his loveseat, when the fire began.
He was 6 feet 2 inches, and his feet were dangling over the edge. "The police officer told us he looked as if he just went to sleep," said Joyce Olinger. "He'd had a comforter on him and it was burned on the edges." From her own observations in his apartment, plus conversations with local authorities, she's tried as best she could to piece together what happened.
A square coffee table was in front of the loveseat, and one leg was charred. "The legs were black lacquer — maybe they or the carpet released toxic fumes," said Joyce Olinger. "The carpeting [under the table] was burned, and there were gobs of wax all over the side of the table."
An Aztec vase she'd seen on that table, in photos, had fallen onto the floor and was blackened on one side. Apparently, the lighted candle on top of the coffee table "burned down to where it broke the thin glass of the table's mirror top," said Olinger. "The candle fell and burned the table leg, and everything on the table fell through to the floor."
Her son had decorated his apartment for the holidays. His Christmas stockings were hanging, and a Nativity set was on display. But because of the fire, everything — including his beloved piano — was covered with black soot from the smoke.
Olinger said Danny had bronchitis as an adult and had pneumonia in August. And, she said, "He was a very sound sleeper; maybe he was just taking a nap. It was comforting to me that he wasn't burned."
Danny lived on the bottom floor of the three-story building, and neighbors described him as friendly and outgoing. "He was a happy, smiling kind of guy — always laughing and cheerful," said upstairs neighbor Kevin Okyere. He last saw Danny, a couple days before Christmas, at The Shark Club in Centreville.
Okyere was home watching TV, Christmas night, when the building's fire alarm went off. "I started knocking on doors and calling my neighbors out," he said. "We didn't know what was going on. When I got outside, you could see heat waves on the window inside [Danny's] apartment. It was kinda scary. I thought he wasn't home."
He said police responding to the scene talked to him and other neighbors, but wouldn't tell them what happened. "A friend called me later, after watching TV, and said, 'Kevin, do you know a man in your building died?'" said Okyere. "I was surprised, and I felt upset because we're neighbors. I couldn't believe it. You see someone — a couple days later, he's gone. He's a young, nice man, and his life is ended, just like that."
Joy Saunders, living directly across from Dan Olinger, was also home at the time. "My fiancée was asleep on the couch," she said. "We heard a loud alarm, and I told him to go check outside. He saw water outside our apartment, and we knew the sprinkler had gone off. We smelled something burning; next thing we knew, there were 10 million firetrucks and police cars outside our building. Everyone had to evacuate, and a crowd gathered outside."
Tracy Garland, who lives directly above Olinger's apartment, called Dan a "down-to-earth guy. He was one of the first neighbors I met when I moved in here. He'd always ask how I was doing, and he'd give cookies and little, toy firetrucks to my two little boys."
She wasn't home when the fire started, but returned around 7 p.m. and heard about her friend's death. "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, no, not Dan,'" she said. "It's not the same anymore passing by his balcony; it's a sad feeling. He will be missed."
This Wednesday, Jan. 8, would have been his 32nd birthday. Besides his parents, David and Joyce Olinger, he's survived by his brother David, 45, and sister Susan Kolodske, 43. Although he didn't drive, friends took him places and he held down two jobs.
For the past five or six years, he was a bartender at the Chantilly National Golf & Country Club, and his brother David said he was well-liked by the management and customers and made many friends there. He also worked for Better Brew Coffee Inc. of Chantilly, helping set up coffee service in various business offices.
But most of all, said his brother, "Danny was a super person; he never had an enemy and was friendly with everyone he met. I have a boat, and we'd go out fishing and water skiing on the Potomac. He also loved playing the piano and played all types of music very well. And he loved working at the country club and was a very good golfer."
Dan was born and raised in Lemont, a suburb of Chicago. He took piano lessons for 11 years and studied piano for 1 1/2 years at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill. "He was a good kid and everybody loved him," said his sister. "He had a heart of gold and was a good, honest person."
He was 12 years younger than her, and she took him to movies when he was a child. "He used to love to play canasta with his father, and he loved sports and played basketball," she said. "He liked Billy Joel and Elton John, and Billy Joel's right — 'Only the Good Die Young.'"
Danny lived in Virginia about 11 years and at least a year in Centreville. His brother David lives in Manassas, and Dan followed him to this area. His mother last saw Danny in May when he came home to Illinois for Mother's Day.
"He loved people and he'd give you his last dime," she said. "When a friend's mother died, Danny gave him the money to go home to the funeral. He was a genuine, caring person — happy-go-lucky and carefree."
Recalling happier times, she said her husband put up a basketball hoop in their driveway where young Danny honed his athletic skills. Said Joyce Olinger: "I'd tell him, 'You're wearing the concrete off the driveway,' because, I swear, he'd shoot a thousand baskets a day." Noting that Danny's father is 72, she said, "Danny came late in life — he's the baby."
On Christmas night, her daughter and son-in-law were visiting her home when David called. "While he was on the phone, he said, 'Someone's pounding on my door,'" said Olinger. "It was two police officers, and he said, 'I'll call you back.' When he didn't, I called him, and his wife asked to speak to my daughter. She became upset, and I just knew that something bad had happened and it was Danny."
The family plans a memorial service celebrating his life at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Lemont, and contributions in his name for the church's building fund may be sent to St. Patrick's at 600 Illinois St., Lemont, Ill. 60439. Anyone who knew him may also sign the guest book and express comments at www.potomacnews; click on obits - Olinger.
"It's so tragic," said Danny's mother, choking back tears. "What consoles me is that he just went to sleep and didn't suffer. But our lives will never be the same." Still, she said, although he never got to marry or have a family, he contributed a lot in his short life.
"It's going to be hard, but we have good memories and no one can ever take them away," she said. "I don't think I'll ever light a candle again, except in church. And every Christmas day, we'll remember..."