Ann Hayes remembers the woman's voice on the phone, at once both chilling and reassuring:
"First let me say that the boys are fine . . ." the voice said, " . . . the dogs are fine, but there's a fire in your basement and they are having trouble putting it out." It was the afternoon of Dec. 10, and Ann Hayes and two of her four children were at the doctor's office.
"So I drove home knowing that the boys and the dogs were fine but that the house was on fire," she said, smiling slightly at the memory.
If that thoughtful neighbor had not warned her -- "If I had thought for one moment that the children were in that house, I would have gone into shock," she said, recalling her reaction when she rounded the corner onto Merle Place in the Bren Mar Park subdivision of Alexandria and found her brick-and-frame house engulfed in flames.
That warning call was the first of many neighborly acts of kindness and assistance to the Hayes family, whose home at 6320 Merle Place burned to a blackened shell 15 days before Christmas.
In the fire, which started in some papers in the basement and was fed by a gas leak, the family lost nearly everything except what they were wearing or carrying in their pockets that day. Clothing, bedding, toys, appliances, household and tax records -- everything was gone.
Ann and Michael Hayes, their children Stephen, 11, Kevin, 9, Brian, 6, Melissa, 4, and the family's two dogs were left standing in the street with nothing and nowhere to go.
A number of neighbors immediately offered to take them in, and others thrust money into their hands as they stood watching the house burn. The Red Cross provided an emergency allotment for food and clothing, but that was only the beginning. The tragedy galvanized the community.
"The idea (of organized help) was conceived as the house was burning and the community was standing around at the time," said Judy Huebner, the neighbor who had called both the Hayeses to warn them of the fire.
As firemen doused the last of the flames, the Hayeses decided to accept the invitation of John H. MacDonald, a bachelor from down the block whom they hadn't met before, to stay at his four-bedroom home.
Before the family arrived there, other neighbors had stocked MacDonald's kitchen shelves, refrigerator and freezer with food. Two closets had been filled with clothes, all carefully hung on hangers. Other neighbors brought in beds and made them up with fresh linens. There were dozens of toothbrushes, tubes of toothpaste and a case of toilet paper. Neighbors brought in clothes and coats for the children, so they could go to school the next morning.
That evening, after a local soccer awards ceremony, the community really got organized. Committees were formed and responsibilities were divided up. A bank account was started for contributions, which came from many strangers, indlucing the postman and an anonymous Metrobus driver who drove past the burned house and stopped to make a donation.
A food committee coordinated offers of help so that a hot meal was delivered to the Hayeses at MacDonald's house every evening for 10 days.
Other neighbors sorted donated clothing according to the children's sizes, so that the family received only useful and appropriate items.
For several days after the fire, as Michael Hayes worked to clean up and secure the property, a number of neighbors took time off from their jobs to help him. They salvaged a few things -- 72 pieces of sterling silver, most of the bone china, the TV, the sewing macine and, incredibly, the family's 25 photo albums. All were returned to Ann Hayes dried, cleaned and polished by neighbors.
"I had decided that night I had lost everything, psychologically, so with the rediscovery of different items, I've been sort of rejoicing," said Ann Hayes, 36, who is slender and has a scatering of freckles and soft, tawny hair.
"When I found out all the kids were fine, from then on it was just a matter of possessions," said Michael Hayes, 38, a husky man with a businesslike manner.
Five days before Christmas, Bren Mar residents gave a "shower" at the neighborhood elementary school to help the family begin replacing the contents of the house.
Each two blocks of the 21-block subdivision were assigned to replace lost items in the children's rooms, kitchen, bathroom and living room of the Hayes home. Several hundred persons brought gifts. Someone had spent hours recreating a favorite pillow for one of the children. Someone else brought a Christmas tree, fully decorated.
"There were four large cafeteria tables filled end to end with gifts," said Michael Hayes, who is a computer scientist recently retired from the Navy. "It was a very emotional experience. I've never had anything like that happen to me in my life. To see such response is totally unheard of in my experience. I wouldn't have believed it."
The Hayeses have rented a place not far from Bren Mar while their house is being rebuilt. Insurance will pay for most of the reconstruction, but won't fully cover replacement of the contents. The family still must replace such items as bank records, the children's birth certificates and Michael's military papers.
"Usually, people say, 'What can I do to Help?" said Ann Hayes, "but here was a machine all set up, so people could say, 'Ah yes, here's what you can do to help.'"
"This community rose to heights I have never seen before," said John MacDonald, 33, the man who took the Hayeses in and now calls them "my Brady Bunch." He says he was stunned by the community's response as much as the family was: "It was an experience for me I don't think many people will every have." MacDonald, a passenger service representative for U.S. Air, raised $150 from his fellow employes the day after the fire.
The experience touched the community as well. "Since we all sit in houses exactly like Ann's, it could have happened to any one of use," said Judy Huebner."Bren Mar is just one of those communities where what happenes to one of us happens to all."