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At Site of Mass Md. Arson, Families Wait and Worry

Some Owners Are Permitted to See Homes

By Susan Kinzie and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page A01

On Sunday, George and Yvonne Haley watched construction workers install siding on the four-bedroom house they had signed a contract to buy for nearly $500,000. They were looking forward to being all moved in by early February, in time to host a Super Bowl party for old friends and new neighbors.

The next day, the Haleys were back. Behind the flashing lights of police cars blocking the entrance to the Hunters Brooke subdivision in Southern Maryland, they met their new neighbors.

Hunters Brooke homeowners Sharon Smith, left, Yvonne Haley and George Haley hoped to see their houses but were not permitted to do so. The Haleys said they had been told that their house on Cabinwood Court is still standing. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Md. Arson: Ten homes were destroyed and 16 damaged, resulting in an estimated $10 million in destruction to the new subdivision.
Charles County Fire
_____More From The Post_____
No Motive Found in Charles Arsons (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Arson Brings Battle Over Bog to Surface (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Developer Plans to Rebuild Houses (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Arson Turns A Dream Into Dread (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)

Two of the houses near theirs on Cabinwood Court had burned to the ground early Monday, casualties in what may be the biggest residential arson in state history. Authorities have not allowed the Haleys close to their property, which is blocked off, but the couple say they have been told that their house is still standing.

"To me, it's like a feeling of violation," Yvonne Haley said.

Yesterday, investigators -- including federal arson experts and members of an anti-terrorism task force -- said they knew of no motives or suspects in the fires, which caused an estimated $10 million in destruction, destroying 10 unoccupied homes and damaging 16 others. A neighborhood was all but lost before most of the residents had moved in.

Construction had not started on most of the two-story houses in the planned 319-home development in western Charles County, but many people, like the Haleys, already felt at home there. Within hours of the fires, a few residents and many of their soon-to-be-neighbors huddled at the bottom of a steep hill. They shared stories and rumors, getting to know one another amid sirens, television crews and drizzle.

"We just sort of supported and fed off of each other," said Yvonne Haley, 45.

In the mostly white county, many of the families who bought homes in the subdivision are African American. Many of them work for the federal government -- for the State Department, the military, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies -- and saved enough money to buy a big home out in the country. Some said they were riding a strong real estate market, getting a good enough price on their previous house to afford a better one.

Some knew there had been environmental controversy swirling around the construction site, which is near a 6.5-acre wetlands area containing rare species of plants and insects. But they thought that had been resolved in court. Some also heard rumors that the fires might have been racially motivated.

It was a blessing no one was hurt, Yvonne Haley said, but "why would somebody go and attack something of yours?"

George Haley, 53, who works for a government contractor, said he does not want to dwell on possible motives. "I'm not thinking about anything right now except seeing the house," he said.

Some of the property owners got news right away: Joseph and B.J. Antonio learned Monday that the house they hoped to move into soon had burned to the ground.

"It is simply devastating," said Joseph Antonio, a researcher for a financial investment company who moved his family into a hotel after selling their old home in Germantown.

Others spent Monday and yesterday peering at aerial photographs, looking for their property, checking news Web sites, calling their insurance companies, canceling movers, extending storage unit rentals, talking to banks.

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