Richard Peterson dedicated his life to taking care of his disabled daughter, Sophia. So it's highly likely that, as their home burned around them, with his dying breath, he did all he could to save her.
TRAGICALLY, though, they were unable to escape in time and both perished Sunday morning in a horrific fire that took their lives and completely destroyed their mobile home in the Meadows of Chantilly.
"They were a wonderful and loving family," said Lindsey Swanson of Alexandria, a longtime friend. "And Richard was the kindest man you could ever hope to meet."
Peterson's wife, Susan, was at church in Washington, D.C., at the time, and learned of her husband and younger daughter's death from their older daughter, Genevieve, 22, a 2002 Chantilly High grad now living in Falls Church.
Richard was in his late 50s and Sophia was 21. The family had lived in the mobile-home park for 14 years, including while Genevieve attended middle school.
"A classmate of hers still lived there, and he had her cell-phone number and alerted her to what was going on," said Swanson. "By the time she got there, there were a ton of police and firefighters, and she called her mother to let her know what happened. Then someone took Susan from church to Genevieve's house because Genevieve didn't want her mother to see the house."
According to Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department spokesman Dan Schmidt, the fire was accidental, caused by an "unattended candle in the living room." But neighbors, seeing the charred and blackened rubble afterward, wondered how it would have been possible to reach such a conclusion, since a wax candle would also have disintegrated in the conflagration.
THE PETERSONS lived on Lanica Circle and, said Schmidt, "Firefighters saw heavy fire and smoke coming from the double-wide mobile home upon arrival. Several neighbors called it in, as well as others who'd seen the smoke."
He said the home was "fully involved with fire" and threatened other nearby homes because of "the high volume of flames and windy conditions. And the homes are also pretty close together."
It quickly became a two-alarm blaze, with more than 60 emergency personnel responding from the Chantilly and Fair Oaks fire stations, both Centreville stations and the Frying Pan, Fairfax Center and Herndon stations.
Firefighters brought the fire under control in approximately 30 minutes, and Schmidt said they found the two victims during their primary search of the home. "It's a tragedy," he said. "It's just terrible that that happened."
He said damage is estimated at $75,000, and the home is a complete loss. Two adjacent mobile homes received radiant-heat damage, resulting in melted vinyl siding and several cracked windows. Heat from the fire also melted the plastic exterior of a Dodge Stratus parked next door, barely missing its gas tank.
Swanson, of Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood, said her mother's best friend is Susan Peterson's sister, Carol Ertel of Alexandria. "So I grew up with them always around," said Swanson. "We spent all our holidays together."
Sadly, both Susan and her daughter Sophia were wheelchair-bound, although Susan could walk a little bit. "Susan was in a car accident, three or four years ago, and was in traction for a long time afterward," said Swanson. "The accident left her disabled and limited her mobility, so she wasn't able to walk as well."
She said Sophia was born with severe birth defects that rendered her bedridden for her entire life. "She's never been able to communicate, move or feed herself," said Swanson. "But she was the happiest child; she'd smile, laugh and express emotion."
Swanson described Richard Peterson as "a lovely man; very kind and caring. He was a family man who took care of both his wife and daughter. He dedicated his life to them. He used to work for an architect in D.C. but, about 18 years ago, he quit his job to take care of them full-time."
She said both Richard and Susan Peterson were highly educated. And Susan studied music and music theory at Catholic University and was a classically trained, operatic singer and pianist.
SHE PLAYED for various churches and charities in the District and around the Chantilly area. She also worked with the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C., playing the piano and singing at their masses. And that's where she was Sunday morning when the fire broke out.
Swanson's mother heard about it from Carol, Susan's sister, and then called her own daughter to break the news to her. "I was in absolute shock," said Swanson. "I just started sobbing. I will never begin to understand why such horrible things happen to such wonderful people."
Calling Richard a selfless person, she said he always greeted her with a smile and a hug. She also noted that the Petersons had three cats and it's not known what became of them. Said Swanson: "We think they perished, as well, but we don't know for sure."
Although the Petersons' lives were difficult, she said, they did the best they could and were "immensely loving and caring people. I grew up thinking of them as family. And to have lost two family members so tragically in one day is just mind-boggling. We're severely saddened by the loss."
Furthermore, said Swanson, "Unfortunately, given the severity of their situation and the cost of caring for Sophia, the family does not have money to cover funeral expenses, let alone to start rebuilding their lives. So a bank account has been set up to collect donations toward the funerals."
Checks payable to The Richard and Sophia Peterson Fund may be mailed to the fund, c/o Wachovia Bank, Bradlee Financial Center, 3624 King St., VA9338, Alexandria, VA 22302.
Monday afternoon, many local residents either drove or walked slowly by the burned-out shell of the fire-ravaged mobile home, stunned by the extent of the devastation. Method and Ruth Jaso, who've lived in the neighborhood almost 24 years, shook their heads sadly at what they saw.
"As we were going out Sunday, we saw the firetrucks going in," said Method. "When we came back, two or three hours later, there was still a lot of activity," said Ruth. "I don't think it's really sunk in, yet. We've had fires here before, but I don't think anyone died. It's so sad, someone losing their life. And with a handicapped person, it makes it twice as bad."
Across the street, Pietro Saavedra was busy fixing up his home's exterior Monday, prior to moving in with his family. He, too, was shocked by the tragedy. "Oh, my God," he said. "We knew them about six months. The mother used to go on a special Metro car to work and returned home around 5 or 6 p.m."
THE SAAVEDRAS currently live in Franklin Farm, and Pietro's sister-in-law living in the Meadows of Chantilly called him Sunday afternoon about the fire. "She was worried my home was in danger," he said. "But she checked on it and said we were OK. I feel bad; if I'd been here, I would have tried to help them — break a window or something."
He's even reconsidering his decision to relocate. "I was thinking to rent my house in Franklin Farm and move here because it's less expensive," said Saavedra. "But now I think I'll sell this and keep my house. I don't feel confident about this home and the way it's built."
Six-year resident Charles Munds called the newer homes "very secure." But, added his wife Kathleen, "It's very worrying because these mobile homes go up [in flames] very fast. This is the second fire since we've been here."
Ed Hoisington, of Ed's Plumbing & Heating in Chantilly, works in the neighborhood and often chatted with Susan Peterson. "She'd always come down the ramp [on the side of their home] and talk to me," he said. "She'd ask where I was going and tell me to take care of myself. They were the nicest people; it couldn't have been worse. I felt awful; we've been here 22 years and they were friends."
Dave Moran, who lives a few doors away, saw the smoke and fire Sunday and said the home was "pretty-much engulfed. It's just a terrible thing — that poor, young girl and her father. It's just a darn shame. The mother must be distraught to lose her husband and daughter."