Wednesday, March 7, started out like any other Wednesday for Ellen Carroll. The director of the Great Falls Yoga Institute left her home in the morning, headed to her studio and began her usual workday routine. Around mid-day, she answered her phone, still unaware that her life was about to be turned upside-down.
"I got a call from my neighbor, and this is a call that you don't ever want to get," said Carroll.
A stunned Carroll listened as her neighbor informed her that the house she had left just a few hours earlier, was being consumed by a massive fire. Carroll quickly headed back to her home on Richland Grove Drive in the Seneca Farms area of Great Falls, but could not gain access as firefighters had set up a blockade at Seneca Road.
"I kept saying 'but I'm the homeowner,' and they still wouldn't let me through.
Carroll's husband Randy Carroll was also at the scene, having rushed over after receiving a phone call at his office in McLean. The couple was eventually permitted entry to their street, and they spent the afternoon in stunned sadness watching their entire home burn to the ground.
"It was weird," said Ellen Carroll. "They had all the trucks up there, so when it got really cold they tried to keep us sitting in the warm trucks, but it was just numbing — all we could do was just watch."
FAIRFAX COUNTY Fire and Rescue units responded to the fire at approximately 12:15 p.m. on Wednesday, March 7, and said that firefighters arrived to see heavy fire and smoke coming from the rear of the single-family home, which was tucked away on a scenic, wooded property. According to Fairfax County Fire and Rescue officials, a second alarm was struck and additional tankers dispatched, as the home was "heavily involved with fire." A total of three tanker trucks were used, including one from Cabin John, Md. More than 80 emergency personnel responded to the scene, with participation from eight different engine companies.
Fairfax County Fire and Rescue officials said that the second floor of the house collapsed into the first floor, just minutes after firefighters arrived, and firefighters fought the fire from the exterior for several hours before it was completely extinguished.
Fortunately, no one was at home when the fire broke out as Randy and Ellen Carroll were both at work, and their two daughters Sarena, 18, and Lann, 13, were at school.
"The last one of us left at about a quarter after eight, and we didn't notice anything unusual, but apparently the house was on fire by 11:30," said Carroll.
The couple's 21-year-old son Taylor found out about the fire from a complete stranger, as the West Point Academy senior currently uses his father's old cellular phone. A friend of his father's heard about the fire on the radio and called the number thinking it still belonged to Randy Carroll.
"He said 'are you OK?" and Taylor said 'I think so, why?'" said Ellen Carroll. "It was really bizarre."
The family's dog was also able to escape the fire without injury, although they are still not exactly sure how.
"He has a dog run — thank God — and apparently he found a way out, or in the midst of trying to fight the fire he found a way out," said Ellen Carroll. "But then everybody tried to catch him all afternoon because he just kept running around."
The dog is currently recovering from the stressful episode at Seneca Animal Hospital. Unfortunately, the family is still searching for their two tabby cats "Hunter" and "Cricket." "Hunter" is four years old, and "Cricket" is just under a year old.
"I'm just telling [my daughters] that the kitties are in the woods, and we're just going with that," said Ellen Carroll.
THE FIRE DESTROYED the entire home, leaving nothing but the basement. The damage is estimated to be in excess of $1 million. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue officials are still investigating the cause of the fire, but Ellen Carroll said that they are fairly certain that it was the result of freak glitch in one of their heating units.
"They could tell that it started in the center of the home in the kitchen where the three heating units are, and they're reasonably positive that one of them sparked," said Ellen Carroll.
The central and underground source may also be responsible for the destructive power of the blaze.
"It was a very unusual and devastating fire because it traveled under the floor," said Ellen Carroll. "There's not a trace of any of the floor joists left — it burned on top of itself. If the fire had started in the house, we would definitely not be looking at nearly the destruction we are looking at ... it's like Armageddon."
Ellen Carroll said her whole family is in absolute awe of the bravery, determination and hard work exhibited by all of the firefighters and other fire and rescue officials who came to their aid.
"They are incredible people," she said. "They had tears in their eyes, and they kept saying they were sorry they couldn't do more."
THE CARROLLS had lived in their Richland Grove Drive home since 1999, and Ellen Carroll said that the residence was designed by the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and featured numerous red and white oak arched doorways and fieldstone floors. Sarena Carroll, a student at the New School in Fairfax, has not yet visited the charred remains of her home, but Lann Carroll, a student at Cooper Middle School, came to the site with a friend on the day of the fire and cried as she surveyed the scene.
"But both of my girls said 'mom, it's just our material possessions,'" said Ellen Carroll.
Carroll said she personally laments the destruction of the family's antiques and original artwork, but that she is most upset about the loss of the baby calendars that she painstakingly maintained everyday for the first year of each of her children's lives.
"For the first year of their life, I wrote down every single thing they did, every single day," she said. "But they know that I did that."
The Carrolls plan to rebuild their home, but expect to be displaced for at least one year. They are currently staying at a hotel in McLean. The family is grateful for the outpouring of community support. Ellen Carroll said that people have offered their homes and sent flowers, gift baskets and notes of sympathy.
"Everybody has been so kind and wanting to help, but we're doing OK, and we very much appreciate the prayers and concern," she said. "I think that's how we're getting through this."
Much of the community outreach has come via the community e-mail network "Neighbors."
"Right now, they are simply just still in shock over the entire thing," wrote Neighbors founder and president Sharon Rainey in a recent e-mail to all members. "I'm sure our help will be needed soon — we'll just wait a bit to see what their needs are."