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Devastating Fire Deals Chantilly Family Another Blow

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007

Genevieve Petraglia was settling into a relaxed Sunday morning before her nursing shift was to begin when she picked up a phone message from a friend she grew up with in Chantilly. She thought he said "there's crazy stuff" going on at her parents' house.

She called home. She called her mother's cellphone. No answer. By the time Petraglia, 22, had driven the 20 minutes from her Falls Church townhouse to her parents' trailer home in the Meadows of Chantilly, the deep, black smoke, intense heat and flames that licked 25 feet high into the sky had consumed her family's home.

Firefighters kept her away as they doused the smoldering ashes of what had once been the family's furniture, her mother's piano, the book on theology her father had been writing for years and her sister's hospital bed.

Petraglia had a bad feeling. "They wouldn't tell me anything," she said.

Later, they would tell her that they found the remains of two bodies, one near the living room couch and the other in her sister's bed, but that a medical examiner would need to perform special forensics work to determine their identities.

Standing on the corner, behind yellow police tape, she heard her cellphone ring. It was her mother, Susan Peterson, who had left earlier that morning for church to play piano and sing. Petraglia burst into tears. "I was so happy when I heard her," Petraglia said. "I thought I had lost her, too."

Although Fairfax Fire and Rescue officials have yet to positively identify the bodies, Petraglia said the fire took the lives of her severely disabled sister, Sophia Peterson, 21, and her father, Richard, 60, who had dedicated the last 15 years of his life to caring for Sophia.

"I'm still in shock," Petraglia said. "When the firefighters finally brought me back, I couldn't even go near it."

To the friends who know Petraglia and her family, what happened last week was just one more in a long string of blows. The harsh turns of their luck over the years brought to mind the travails of Job, one said. "But they were all so close. They always acted like the luckiest people on earth."

"We were," Petraglia said. "We were."

The fire was caused by an unattended candle, said David McKernan, Fairfax's deputy fire chief for prevention. He said that Richard Peterson lighted one or a group of candles near the front door, which he often did before praying and meditating. "What exactly happened, whether the candles burned down or whether the wind blew the flame onto something or the candle fell, we don't know," McKernan said.

He said autopsies showed that the victims died of smoke inhalation.

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