Fire officials say an unattended candle was the culprit in a two-alarm townhouse fire last week that caused $404,000 damage and displaced six people in Centreville's Manorgate community.
The blaze broke out last Wednesday night, Jan. 3, at 14248 Autumn Circle and, when it was through, not much was left of that unit but a charred, black exterior and piles of rubble inside. The townhouses on either side both sustained smoke and water damage.
"The call came in at 8:15 p.m., with heavy fire showing from the rear of the townhouse," said Lt. Jeff Trice, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department spokesman. "And with that amount of fire — and it being so close to the other homes — it became a two-alarm fire and we called in other resources."
Both Centreville fire stations 17 and 38 responded, as did firefighters and paramedics from stations 15 and 21 in Chantilly and Fair Oaks, respectively. "Over 60 emergency personnel responded," said Trice. "It took 50 minutes to put it out."
He said an unattended candle in the living room of the middle of the three townhouses involved caught something on fire and the flames quickly spread. Four people were in those homes at the time and they all escaped. But the woman who lived at 14248 was taken to the hospital for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries.
Trice said the damage to all three units is estimated at $404,000 — with $321,000 of that amount attributed to the middle townhouse. He said it sustained an estimated $200,000 damage to its structure and $121,000 to its contents.
BUT NEIGHBORS in the units on both sides of it say things could have been much worse — maybe even tragic — were it not for the quick actions of a good Samaritan firefighter who lives across from them and alerted the occupants that they were in danger.
"I was here when the fire broke out," said Christin Connors, 22, who lives at 14250 Autumn Circle. "I was sitting in the living room wrapping some Christmas presents when I heard the fire alarm go off and someone screaming. The firefighter who lives across the street was telling people to get out. I took my cell phone and ran outside."
Connors is one of three renters living in that unit, owned by a Maryland man. She and one other woman are Mary Washington College grads, and the third woman works at GMU.
"We were able to gather our things last night, and we're now staying with friends," said Connors last Thursday, Jan. 4. "It was scary, but I'm very thankful. It could have been a lot worse."
The owner, who declined to give his name, said his townhouse wouldn't be habitable for awhile because of smoke and water damage. He said firefighters "had to knock through a wall to see if there was fire in the walls or ceiling — and the basement flooded."
Similar conditions displaced the husband and wife living at 14246 Autumn Circle, and the fire department posted a note on the door declaring that unit "unsafe, and its use or occupancy prohibited." It's been their home since these three-story townhouses with bottom-level basements were built in 1994, and they came back the day after the fire to check on things. The couple declined to give their names.
When the blaze began, the husband was in their kitchen, eating dinner, and his wife was lying down, when they heard a loud voice outside. "It was a good Samaritan fireman knocking on the door, telling everyone to get out," she said. So she yelled to her husband and then, he said, "I saw the flames from the middle level of 14248 just coming out."
"When I came outside, the heat was so intense [in that unit] that the glass was popping out of the windows," she said. "It happened so fast," added her husband. "There were so many fire engines, and a helicopter was overhead."
He said they have good neighbors who look out for each other. Although normally, he said, they go their separate ways, "In this crisis, there's been so much love. Everybody was so nice to us." Said his wife: "We were out here 'til about 1:15 a.m. when the last firetruck left, and neighbors brought us hot chocolate and offered to let us sleep at their house."
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, insurance agents, claims adjusters and fire-alarm salespeople flocked to the neighborhood. ADT's Stafford office dispatched three women who spoke to the residents and left flyers about monitored smoke and heat detectors.
"They go off quicker than the ones normally installed in homes and call the fire department for you," said ADT's Lesley Poston. "Our motto is, 'We keep bad things from happening to good people.'"
Meanwhile, a neighbor across the street, Ning Nyrapong, had her own reaction to last week's blaze. "My brother heard someone call, 'Fire, Fire,' and someone had called 911," she said. "The fire was coming out of the main floor [of the middle unit] and going up toward the roof."
"I was scared, and I worried that it might spread to my car parked outside," added Nyrapong. "It was good luck for the neighborhood that all those homes didn't burn — although bad luck for them."