On the night of Sept. 28 a dilapidated trailer parked next to the home of Virginia Zinn and her six children and grandson caught fire, touching off the timbers of the Zinns' porch, spreading uncontrollably and destroying the home.
As Red Cross and Loudoun County welfare department workers searched for housing for the destitute family, the children were scattered to live among friends, and Mrs. Zinn slept in her car for more than six weeks.
Finally, Marylou Hill, a Red Cross volunteer, spotted an abandoned house in Leesburg, and the owner said "This house is so bad, you can rent it free." It had no heat, electricity or water and most of the windows had been knocked out by vandals.
Undeterred, Mrs. Zinn swept "it out, put up plastic film over the windows and painted the peeling walls," Mrs. Hill recalled. "The woman is so fantastic. She's spunky, she's got initiative. She doesn't just sit back and say the world owes her a living."
"I've got a better place than the one I was burned out of," Mrs. Zinn said.
The Zinn's house, at 203 S. King St., may be torn down next summer to make way for commercial construction, but for now it is shelter. On the living room wall, Mrs. Zinn tacked up a handcolored plate that reads: "Bless this House, Oh Lord, we pray. Make it safe by night and day."
With the help of the local Red Cross Chapter, the welfare department, churches and citizens, Mrs. Zinn has been able to make some improvements since she and her family moved in two weeks ago.
The House has been connected to running water, and efforts are underway to provide electricity, along with bottled gas for the kitchen stove.
The house is heated by a Little King wood burning leader that Mrs. Zinn picked up for $24 and connected to the living room flue. She plans to put another heater in the kitchen.
"Come here," 5-year-old Jeannette Zinn says to a visitor and lead him out to the hallway. She proudly points to a new smoke detector that has been installed on the wall near the staircase to the upstairs bedrooms.
Until the fire, Mrs. Zinn, who is separated from her second husband, and her family lived in an old, deteriorating house in Ashburn that she rented for $60 a month. Federally subsidized housing exists in Loudoun, but there are no units with four bedrooms, which Mrs. Zinn would need to meet regulations that put a limit of two persons to a bedroom.
After the fire, county officials went to Rep. Joseph Fisher (D-Va.), who represents Loudoun, to find out if the could get a mobile home through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But HUD said it couldn't provide a trailer unless there was an officially declared disaster, such as a flood.
Loudoun's building code does not prohibit someone from living in a house with no water, heat or electricity. "Emphasis is on safety," county engineer William Wiggins said. "From a legal point of view, I don't think we could keep (the Zinns) from moving in."
To make the house safer, county inspectors suggested Mrs. Zinn put a fire shield under the living room stove and install a smoke detector. Inspectors also checked the wiring. Until the plumbing was connected last week, the Zinns used an outdoor, portable toilet.
While the Zinns predicament attracted attention in Loudoun, Mrs. Hill said, "This is not unique. There are other people living in the county without heat or electricity, and with no windows."
Mrs. Zinn has been on welfare for the past five years, ever since she was no longer able to work because of a nervous condition. She receives $113.50 monthly from Social Security and $153 a month in state-federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
"These past few years haven't been easy," Mrs. Zinn says as she sits next to the store with Jeannette and two of her other daughters, 12-year-old Cathy and Kimberly, who was 11 yesterday.
Last year her mother and two sisters were killed in a traffic accident at Rtes, 50 and 28 near Dulles International Airport. In 1975 Mrs. Zinn was assaulted by a 17-year-old youth who served 12 months in jail for the crime, the maximum sentence for a juvenile.
Besides raising her own children, Mrs. Zinn also helps care for her 18-year-old daughter Patty's 15-month-old son, Timothy.
Since the fire, $560 has been collected to refurbish the Zinn's new home - mainly because of appeals broadcast by radio station WAGE and help provided by members of St. John's Catholic Church in Leessburg and Leesburg Presbyterian Church. Furniture and games for the children also have been donated.
"There's a brighter day a 'coming," Mrs. Zinn said. "The Lord works in a lot of different ways. I think now that he's given me that much bad luck, things are going to get better."