After marrying in 1952, newlyweds Elmer and Ellen Hensley bought land along Compton Road in Centreville's Bull Run Estates community. There, they built a house, raised their children and made a home for more than 50 years.
They still have their family, and Tuesday was their 53rd anniversary. But their house and all their belongings are gone, consumed Friday by a devastating blaze that kept firefighters on the scene for eight hours.
"There was too much smoke and too much fire," said Ellen Hensley, 75. "It came out awful fast, like it exploded. But the Lord's with us and He'll see us through it."
She and Elmer, 84, returned Saturday with son Lake, 49, and daughter Barbara, 51, to meet with their insurance adjuster and see what, if anything, could be salvaged.
But the scene was pretty grim. A clump of pencils, a ceramic bowl, a beach towel and a kitchen potholder decorated with mushrooms were among the handful of items discernible in the blackened piles of rubble.
Added on in the 1960s, the wooden deck and the garage remained, but flames had devoured everything in between — the living room, kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms and an outer living room. In its place now was a huge gap filled with charcoal-coated debris, cinder blocks and sticks of wood.
The fire started in the basement, but the exact cause is still under investigation. Meanwhile, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department estimates the damage at $200,000.
More than 60 firefighters from both Centreville fire stations, Clifton, Fair Oaks and Chantilly raced to the home Friday around 4:50 p.m. But the fire was so intense that it took them nearly 1 1/2 hours to bring it under control. One firefighter was taken to Inova Fair Oaks Hospital for smoke inhalation and the rest stayed on site until after midnight.
Neighbor Manh Duek Cho, who lives across the street, came home from work about 7:30 p.m. to discover Compton Road closed to traffic because of the fire. "I had to come in another way, through Bull Run Post Office Road, and I saw smoke," she said. "Oh, my God, I thought it was my house. Five or six fire trucks were here and many firemen."
She's known the Hensleys almost 10 years and said they're nice people. "I asked the fire department, and they said they got out OK," said Cho. "I'm thankful nobody was hurt, but I feel bad for them. I couldn't sleep [that] night; my heart was sick."
CHRISTINE AND JOHN SUNDA live next door to the Hensleys, and Christine was home when the fire started. "I heard a siren and thought it was an ambulance," she said. "Then I heard a second one and, when I walked outside, I saw the backup of cars in front of my house and fire trucks next door."
"When I saw flames coming through the roof, I knew it was pretty bad," she said. She brought over chairs and water and said the Hensleys "got out with the shirts on their backs, literally. Ellen couldn't even take her purse. They said they were lucky to get out alive."
When John got home around 8:45 p.m., he said, "The roof had burned and collapsed in. Then after the fire was mostly out, they tore out what was remaining of the whole second story."
Christine said the tragedy made her grateful for what she has. But she's sad for the Hensleys "because this was their life they saw going up in front of them."
She also noted that, because that area has no fire hydrants, firefighters had to use water from pumper trucks. After what happened, she said, "At our Bull Run Civic Association lunch next week, I'm gonna tell everyone to double check that their smoke detectors are working."
Actually, the Hensleys had planned to move, and Barbara and Lake both came from their homes in Harrisonburg to help them pack up their house. "We were supposed to be here Tuesday, May 31, but I got sick and we couldn't come," said Barbara. "So we came Thursday."
But she said, "We consider it the providence of God that we could be here for our parents." Gesturing toward the house, she said, "All this is temporary, anyway; the only thing that's eternal is God's love."
On Friday, Barbara was in her old bedroom in the basement, around 11-11:30 a.m., when she smelled smoke. "My brother checked the whole house and couldn't find anything," she said. And the fire didn't break out until some five hours later.
"There wasn't anything flammable in there and no one used that room," she said. "There were mainly books and magazines. So it's a cautionary tale: If you smell smoke, call the fire department."
About 20 minutes before the fire began, Barbara came upstairs. Still puzzled by the smell, Lake opened the door to the basement and discovered the room engulfed in flames. Then a smoke alarm went off upstairs.
"MY DAD WAS in the outer part of the basement, and my brother got him out," said Barbara. She said her father tried quenching the blaze with water from a humidifier "but there was too much fire for it to do any good."
Meanwhile, she said, "Mom got out and went back in, saying, 'Where's Elmer?' She went to the top of the stairs leading from the living room to the basement and didn't even realize her hair had gotten singed. People don't realize that fire reaches [out]."
Finally, the whole family was safely outside. "The fire trucks came very quickly and the firefighters did their best," said Barbara. "They really tried their hardest. But flames were coming out of the house. I saw flames going as high as the trees, 50-75 feet, and I thought, 'Oh, no, the house is gone.'"
As Lake ran outside, she said, "He pulled out the electric meter and turned it off to disconnect the electricity. And we moved our vehicles to make sure they wouldn't catch on fire."
Around 9:30 p.m., said Barbara, firefighters "imploded the back of the house to make the smoke go out. The assistant fire marshal, Lt. Joe Vacchio, said they wouldn't leave until all the smoke was out."
Saturday, surveying what was left of his home, Elmer said, "We built this house and moved into it when it was partially finished in 1954." He'd worked as a meat cutter for Safeway for 30 years, and Ellen had taught school at Navy Elementary and Lanier Intermediate.
And, said their daughter, the family's life always centered around their church. They now attend Manassas Assembly of God but, years ago, before Buckland Assembly of God had its own building in Catharpin, said Barbara, "We used to hold church services here, Sunday mornings."
PRECIOUS FAMILY photographs, important papers, a piano and an antique organ were lost in the fire, as was an L-shaped bookcase Elmer made for the living room when Barbara was a child. While preparing to move, she said, "My mom said, 'We're definitely taking that bookcase with us.' And I woke up this morning and thought, 'Oh, Daddy's bookcase.'"
Still, she said, "The main thing is God is good and we got out. My brother's a hero, but my dad's my biggest hero."