In the early hours of Wednesday, Feb. 8, Samuel Engel Burr Jr. and his wife Alice awoke to find thick, acrid smoke billowing in the door of their upstairs bedroom.
Without stopping for belongings, they rushed down the stairway and stepped onto the front porch as the house caved in behind them.
On the porch both the Burrs slipped and fell heavily on the ice. Alice struck her head and was killed instantly; Samuel broke both legs.
Today the 80-year-old Burr - professor emeritus of American University, descendant of Aaron Burr and a longtime crusader in the cause to right Burr's reputation - is fighting to forget the fire and pull the pieces of his life back together.
Dr. Burr, as he prefers to be called, can be found in a small single room at the Constant Spring Inn in Front Royal, Va., about four miles west of Linden, where he lost his home and wife.
"I'm not bitter about the fire - I'm not happy about it either. It's just one of those things that happened," Burr said. "The good Lord has taken my wife and left me here for some purposes.
"Right now I've got definite projects to complete. It doesn't matter if I'm 80 or 81."
Last week, Burr took a gaint step toward completing his projects. He stood up from his twin bed without assistance and commanded his legs forward an inch at a time until he reached his crutches leaning against the wall by the door. Once on his crutches he hobbled to his 4-year-old car, 50 yards away. He backed his body into the driver's seat for the first time since the fire and lifted his legs in, one at a time. Then, without telling anyone, he drove to the Front Royal town hall and applied for a driver's license.
The 20 minute trip exhausted him he said, but his success in getting a 60-day permit brought a smile every time anyone telephoned or stopped by.
"Guess what I did?" he asked them all. "No. I drove downtown." With each of the last three words, his smile broadened until at the end of the sentence he chuckled slightly and returned a "right-o" to everyone's exclamation of disbelief.
"I am just shocked," said his 18-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth Biddle, when she arrived at the inn and heard about his feat. Biddle returned to the United States from Paris where she is studying at Sorbonne to take care of Burr after the fire.
Four weeks ago, doctors removed the cast from Burr's left leg. It now looks normal except for some discoloration in his toes, which were frozen when he crawled on his stomach away from the burning house and collapsed, to be found 1 1/2 hours later in the 7-degree temperature by the Front Royal Rescue Squad.
The cast on his right leg, which was broken in five places between the knee and ankle, came off three weeks ago. That leg is swollen about half again its size and gives him considerable pain, he said.
He occupies his time answering mail. Head of the A.N. department of education from 1947 to 1959, and a faculty member until 1968. Burr communicates with hundreds of former colleagues and students.
His biggest anxiety is the fact that along with his china, clothes and antique furniture, he lost his address book in the fire.
"It never occurred to me to keep it in a bank," Burr said. "I have to rely on my memory, which fortunately, is pretty good."
Although he has accumulated about 500 addresses from memory and friends, there hundreds more he would like to have.
Beside academic friends, Burr also has maintained his presidency of the Aaron Burr Association and vice presidency of Skyland Estates Corp., the developement in Linden where his home, Tremont was located.
The Burr Association's sole goal is setting the record straight on the man who served a term as vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.
Through the years Samuel Burr has written the quarterly association newsletter, published a book about Burr and fired off reams of angry letters to historians and publishers.
Sitting at the foot of his bed in his Front Royal room are three boxes of mail, all neatly alphabetized, that he has received since the fire. Every month about 800 more flood his post office box in Linden.
Burr answers as many as he can in longhand but has resorted to having his granddaughter type up some from letters to send to members of the groups to which he belongs. He has canceled membership in most groups and has canceled all appointments, personal and professional, until Jan. 1.
Still, he is busy constantly with mail. Some nights he sits all night answering mail.
"These people have been so nice to me." Burr said. "When this was all over I had no ties anywhere. My wife was gone. My books were gone. Everything was gone. I could have gone anywhere and it wouldn't have mattered. Instead, I chose to stay here where I have lots of friends."
Towering over the table in his room was a television set that has been turned on twice - "once just to see if it worked and once Elizabeth wanted to watch some show about France," Burr said.
"I detest television. I think it's the most diabolical invention ever to come this way," Burr said. "I do not read. I've read thousands of books - some of which I can repeat pretty completely and others of which I've forgotten entirely."
Burr owns four acres on the mountain near Linden, where Tremont stood. All that remains is wild flowers and grasses growing in a pile of ashes and the sound of hammers about 50 feet away. Burr decided to rebuild nearby. A smaller version of Tremont, called Tremont Jr. is expected to be finished in September.
"One of the projects the Lord must have wanted me to do was take care of my grandchildren. I'm building this for them," Burr said.