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Fire Brings Neighbors Together

Following April 28 townhouse fire, neighbors organize fund-raising drive.

In the days after a fire destroyed most of the units in a strip of townhouses on Dakine Circle in Franconia, calls to the neighborhood watch poured in from neighbors who wanted to help the fire-displaced families, said Karan Fissell.

"There was a lot of need for people to do something," said Fissell, one of the neighborhood watch co-chairs.

So, she took charge of organizing a fund raiser and toy and clothing drive, which took place Saturday, April 28 and again Saturday, May 5 at the pool in the Greenwood neighborhood. About 15 families pitched in to help organize and man the drive, she said. "I was really so moved by how everybody came together and put their heart into it."

Just over $4,000 in cash, checks and gift cards were collected during the first weekend and almost as much last Saturday, in addition to boxes of clothing and toys. One of the displaced families has three teen-aged children, another has one teenager, and one of the families has two boys ages 4 and 6.

"The kids really were so disrupted" said Fissell, noting that the boys’ family also lost their dog in the fire. She said the owner of the only unit that was unscathed, although he too has been displaced, has declined any contributions in the face of greater need on the part of the other families.

Patrick Pfaltzgraff is the father of the two boys. He and his family lost two things neither the neighbors nor his homeowner’s insurance can help him replace — their dog and the thesis paper that he had been working on for the last eight months. The family had been renting at the house for less than a year while Pfaltzgraff completed his degree in environmental law at George Washington University. He had backed up his file from his laptop to his desktop computer, he said. "Who knew both were going to be in the same place at the same time when the house burned down?" The university has given him a research assistant and an extension.

Homeowner’s insurance is now covering the difference between Pfaltzgraff’s former monthly rent and the cost of staying at the Courtyard by Marriott near the Springfield Interchange. His sons, he said, are taking the crisis "as well as can be expected." He added that the family has adopted a motto from the movie "Finding Nemo" — "Keep on swimming, keep on swimming." In June, the family will be moving to Atlanta, Ga., where Pfaltzgraff has a job waiting.

THE OUTPOURING of support from the community, Pfaltzgraff said, has been "almost as overwhelming as the fire."

His advice to other homeowners was to save all family pictures to the Internet, as well as other important documents, such as thesis papers. He also noted that papers in a fire-proof safe box should be enclosed in a Ziplock bag — his family’s documents were soaked by the fire hoses.

Mary Kay Welch, who lives with her fiancé and 18-year-old daughter, owned the house next door to the Pfaltzgraffs. She suggested a safe-deposit box at a bank for storing important papers, rather than a fire-safe box. She was unable to find hers in the rubble. She also recommended checking tax returns and going "with your gut" to determine the total value of one’s home and possessions. She is currently rewriting an inventory of her household possessions, since the last inventory was lost in the fire. "We’re still in the midst of sorting through all that and finding out what those answers will be," she said.

Welch’s insurance company is helping her cover short-term rent in a townhouse just up the road from her last one. "I’m very blessed that I could get back into the community," she said.

"The outpouring from the community here at Greenwood has been absolutely incredible," said Welch. She recalled neighbors coming out to help on the day after the fire, as they watched the house rekindle and collapse, and the next day, when they were picking through the rubble. "And they’ve been coming out ever since," she said.

"It was heartbreaking to see them picking through the rubble trying to find something," said Rita Nabb, who was helping to run the drive on Saturday. "It’s been incredible what the community has done. These are things you expect from a small town where everybody knows everybody."

She recalled one young boy stopping by on his bicycle and trying to donate his savings of about $30 in change. She was unsure whether anyone managed to talk him down.

Nabb’s husband, Alan, who is president of the Greenwood Home Owners Association, said that after the homes are rebuilt, neighbors will have another drive to take donations for small appliances.

Fissell said the take from the last two drives will be amassed at the earliest convenience in a room at the Franconia Government Center, where it will be divided among the families. Donations can still be made online at the Web site http://greenwoodneighborhoodwatch.blogspot.com.

Three units were completely destroyed in the blaze, which occurred in the evening of Monday, April 23, and those have already been removed. The next unit in line was badly damaged. According to a news release from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, investigators have determined that the fire started accidentally with a gas grill on a rear deck. A broken gas meter helped feed the flames.