Neighbor is credited with saving family in Fairfax fire


Fairfax County Fire and Rescue units responded to a reported house fire located at 9924 Manet Road in the Burke section of the Braddock District on Wednesday. (Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department)
November 22, 2012

Shortly after Denis Garrelts’s daughter went out to get something from her car Wednesday evening, she raced back inside. “There’s a fire!” she yelled.

It was about 9:30, and much of their next-door neighbor’s garage was engulfed in flames. So was the back of the home, in the 9900 block of Manet Road in Burke. Neighbors described a “surreal” scene of roaring flames, sparks and shattering glass. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

The house was badly damaged, but no one was seriously injured. Fairfax County fire officials credit Garrelts with helping to control the situation and get Michael Cherubin and his family to safety.

“I ran to the front door, and the house was full of smoke, almost to the floor,” Garrelts said in a phone interview Thursday. “I started screaming for Michael. I couldn’t go in . . . [but] he finally came out, and he was gasping. He said, ‘I have to go get Joseph.’ ”

Michael, 61, and his wife, Sheila, 62, are known in their community for assisting the county with emergency placements for foster children, Garrelts said. Joseph and another of the Cherubins’ former foster children, now in their 20s, were visiting Wednesday night.

Michael and the two former foster children were at a nearby restaurant when the blaze started, and they rushed home after his wife called him, Garrelts said. When they arrived, Joseph went into the house, possibly for the family’s pets. Michael began to worry and ran in after him.

Michael found his way back outside after Garrelts yelled for him. Almost immediately, though, he wanted to return for Joseph, who had not emerged.

“I pushed him out,” Garrelts said. “They were . . . dazed. Mike didn’t really talk to me. Luckily, he just listened to me. I’m much bigger in stature than him. We really didn’t talk. I just commanded him — he wasn’t going back and I’ll take care of it and just stay outside.”

Garrelts kept yelling for Joseph, who soon emerged with the family’s cat in his arms. Fire officials credit Garrelts with pulling Joseph, who was disoriented, out of the home as he stumbled near the foyer. That left the family’s dog, Muffin, who eventually trotted out unharmed.

Wegmans donated a Thanksgiving meal and the family is staying at a hotel, Garrelts said. Damage is estimated at $100,000, the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department said. Neighbors are planning to set up a bank account to collect money for the family.

“Our neighbors are so wonderful. I can’t even believe their support,” Sheila said. “This fire could have happened while we were sleeping. We have so much to be thankful for.”

Garrelts said the Cherubins were looking forward to a short vacation to celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary Sunday. “Now they’re not sure,” he said. He has urged the couple to see their situation as an opportunity. “We said, ‘Hey, go for a little vacation, and we’ll look after things.’ ”

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