It has been eight months since the blazing wing of a jet plane crashed through the roof of Dennis and Shirley Clarke's home in McLean, igniting a fire that demolished the house but somehow spared the Clarkes and their four children.
By March the family hopes to be moving into a new home, now nearing completion on the site of their old house. "We'll be safer there than anyplace else I can imagine," said Mrs. Clarke, expanding on the superstition that lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Mrs. Clarke, her husband and their children talked with a visitor the other evening on how their lives had changed since that rainy April night when, as Clarke recalled, it seemed like "this was the end of the world."
On that evening, as the Clarkes watched the television show, "What's Happening" in their home at 1171 Old Stable Rd., they heard "this low sound, a WHOOSH." The adults each picked up one of the younger children and ran out on the lawn as their house exploded behind them. The pilot and copilot of the privately owned, twin-engine aircraft were killed, but no one on the ground was seriously injured.
The plane had exploded in the sky, and as it disintegrated it dropped debris on a swath of McLean countryside."
Preliminary evidence gathered by the federal investigator studying the accident showed that the left wing had ruptured because of excessive stress.
Despite the trauma of the accident and the tremendous time and effort the Clarkes have been forced to spend in rebuilding their lives, they seem to have come through the ordeal relatively unscathed.
"I really haven't thought too much about it," reflected Mike, 15. "When I read about it in the paper or in a magazine I just think it was somebody else."
The other Clarke children, Tricia, 9, Cindy, 14, and Jody, 8, said that what they regretted most was losing their dog, a rabbit, a cat, and a favorite blanket.
The Clarkes' new house will be much like their old one, a two-story, brick Colonial with five bedrooms, although the bedrooms will be slightly larger. The furnishings, which the family bought all at once one day recently after searching for months, will be traditional instead of the Spanish and Mediterranean style they had in their old house.
For six weeks after their house was destroyed, the Clarkes lived at the Tysons Corner Holiday Inn before moving into a rented house at 7730 Falstaff Rd., which is just a half-mile from their former home.
Although their lives are more or less back to normal, the Clarkes had a jolt recently when they heard about the crash of a private plane into a house in Reston. That crash killed Mr. and Mrs. Harry Ottinger, who were inside the house, and the plane's pilot, Joe L. Reid.
"After the Ottingers, we really realized how lucky we were," Mrs. Clarke said. "We didn't think it would happen again."
Clarke said after the Reston tragedy he had called the Fairfax County police and left his telephone number to Mr. and Mrs. Harry Ottinger Sr. could call him if they needed help. Clarke said Ottinger had called him back, but that it seemed best to wait until the Ottingers had more time to recover from the grief of losing their son and daughter-in-law before they met. Their 6-year-old granddaughter - who was at school at the time of the crash - survives.
Clarke, who has become somewhat of an expert in dealing with insurance companies and banks after his experience, believes he may be able to offer the Ottingers some advice on financial matters.
While their neighbors and most other people they've met since April have been extremely kind, some people have tried to take advantage of the situation. "There are some ghouls around, let me tell you," said Clarke.
But Clarke also talked at length about John Reno, an architect who called the family shortly after the plane crash and offered to design their new house free of charge.
Clarke said Reno redrew the plans seven times and has been overseeing the construction operation, yet adamantly refuses to accept any compensation for the work.
"He said he was at a time of his life when he wanted to do something for someone," said Clarke.
Has the family become more religious since their brush with death?
"People keep asking me that," replied Clarke. "People ask, 'why aren't you down on your knees, thanking God for getting you out of there?'
Clarke said that on a Sunday, just a few days after their house was destroyed, he and his family were searching among the piles of rubble, trying to see what they could salvage. A local reporter caught up with them and asked if they had been to church. When they said no, Clarke recalled, the reporter "was flabbergasted."
Mrs. Clarke is equally outspoken on the issue. "If I didn't go to church before this I'm not going to use it as a reason to start a religious atmosphere (in the house)," she said.
Shortly after the April 28 crash, the Clarkes and their neighbors, many of whom had first thought the family had perished in the blaze, held a special Thanksgiving dinner. About 25 people came to the event, which was held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Bucher, which, although next door to the Clarkes' ascaped damage.
"We're going to have one every year on April 28 no matter where we are," said Mrs. Clarke.
"I've been an agnostic for years," Clarke reflected. "I believe things happen to you by chance."