They had to see it for themselves. Maybe it was a hoax, a bad joke. Maybe they weren’t really gone. As the sky darkened Wednesday, four young people, carrying flowers, drove toward a Falls Church house where they had spent so many weekends giggling into the night and pulled up to find what they feared most.
“It’s just gone,” Angela Evatt, 18, said Thursday. “Everything is just gone.”
They knew then, she said, that the deaf community had lost two of its own: Laura Snyder-Gardner, 48, a beloved teacher at Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington, and her 16-year-old daughter Mary Ann, a junior at the high school on the Gallaudet campus.
They laid the flowers — the brightest they could find — on the ground.
“Bright colors, always bright colors,” Evatt, a freshman at Gallaudet, said through an interpreter. “That just reflects their personalities. When you went into their house, there wasn’t a boring wall. There was color everywhere.”
Even before authorities officially identified the victims of the early morning fire on Manor Road, the mourning began. In the close-knit deaf community, the news traveled swiftly and horrified friends and strangers, near and far. Students at Gallaudet, the country’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing, donned clothes in shades of pink and yellow — two of Mary Ann’s favorite colors. On Facebook, photos of the mother and daughter bloomed, including a series showing Laura Snyder-Gardner signing “I love you.” Video tributes using sign language sprouted on the Web.
As of Thursday, fire officials had only named Laura Snyder-Gardner as a victim of the fast-moving fire, which remains under investigation. They said it would take more time to identify the second victim and for the medical examiner’s office to determine the cause of death. It is not known if the family had special fire detectors for the deaf, authorities said. Two dogs and eight cats also died in the fire.
Longtime family friend Rocco Leo Gaglioti, a board member of a nonprofit organization that Snyder-Gardner helped found, said his family is reeling. They had just spent time with the woman last week in Los Angeles.
“Laura has the most beautiful laugh,” he said. “When she laughs, it just lights up the room.”
He described Mary Ann as a jokester, a “little sister.” She attended space camp, had just competed in a deaf basketball championship game and participated in math competitions.
Laura Snyder-Gardner and Gaglioti’s mother, Bonita Leek, managed Miss & Mister Deaf International, an organization designed to promote deaf people worldwide. Gaglioti said Snyder-Gardner also had two older sons, one who went to Gallaudet and another who serves in the military.
Snyder-Gardner, who had two master’s degrees, taught math in the General Studies Program at Gallaudet and helped coach soccer at the secondary school. Before moving to the Washington area, she taught at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine.
Amber Savard, 20, a sophomore at Gallaudet who is from St. Augustine, said Snyder-Gardner was once her teacher.
Savard said she ran into mother and daughter a few weeks ago at a mall in Florida. On Thursday, she was still trying to process their deaths.
“I’m absolutely stunned,” Savard said through an interpreter. “In that short span of time, they’re gone? I just can’t imagine how life can be so fleeting.”
Jessica Dennie, 29, was the first neighbor to call the fire department. She was driving home from work when she saw the house engulfed. Her cellphone was dead so she said she ran inside to call 911.
She and her mother, Corinne Dennie, laid flowers at a light post next to the house later that night. By Thursday, more flowers had been added, with a handful of bright orange daisies on the blanket of snow.
Neighbor Steven Klass, 63, said he was about to go to bed Wednesday night when he noticed vehicle lights outside. He watched as teenagers and young adults, using sign language to communicate, held an impromptu candlelight vigil. When he awoke at 7 a.m. Thursday, Klass said, the candles were still burning.
Colleagues of Snyder-Gardner remembered an enthusiastic educator with a hearty laugh.
“Her specialty in the classroom was tough love,” said Regina Nuzzo, a colleague in the math department. “She taught freshman math, a class most students come in dreading. But over and over, I saw her students say, ‘She really changed my perspective on math. I loved her course.’ She was one of those no-nonsense teachers that somehow everyone adores.”
Neal Matthews, 20, was in her math class last year, and said that one day the students wrote “sexy mama” on the board to make her laugh. He has known her and her family for “five wonderful years,” and on Thursday he wore a pink handkerchief wrapped around his head.
A volunteer with the Kent Island Fire Department, Matthews said two Christmases ago he took Mary Ann to the fire station with a group of their friends. They played hide-and-seek and laughed so hard that other firefighters came running in to see what was going on.
“I can’t describe them,” the Gallaudet freshman said of the mother and daughter. “They’re amazing. Everyone loved them.”
He drove with Evatt that night to visit the house.
Evatt said she moved to the area only a year ago and quickly became friends with Mary Ann, a cheerleader who, unlike other teenagers who use the phrase “you only live once,” really understood it. Soon Evatt was among a small group of girls who would spend weekends at the family’s house.
“That was my haven,” Evatt said. That’s where she and the girls stuffed themselves with mashed potatoes one night in a contest to see who could eat the most and where, at Laura Snyder-Gardner’s suggestion, they made s’mores in the back yard on a frigid night.
Evatt said that’s what she was thinking about as she stood in front of family’s charred home.
“All of these memories,” she said. “Just remembering all of the things that happened, and it’s no longer there.”