A three-alarm fire that may have been deliberately set caused about $600,000 damage to a Fairfax County apartment complex Saturday night and left 32 families homeless, fire officials said yesterday.
The blaze, which prompted Red Cross workers to set up an emergency disaster relief headquarters nearby to help the displaced families find shelter, was "definitely of a suspicious nature," according to fire department Capt. John Sullivan.
As fire and arson investigators began sifting through the charred Southern Manor Apartments yesterday in an effort to determine the cause, residents of the gutted apartments in the Hybla Valley section of the county along the Rte. 1 corridor were attempting to come to grips with their losses.
"We lost everything," said George Farmer, who had just moved into the apartment complex with his new wife a month ago. "All we have now is the clothes on our back.
"We lost all our wedding gifts, our wedding pictures and a recording of the wedding," he said. "We even lost the negatives for the pictures. We're just going to have to start all over again."
The Farmers spent Saturday night with relatives and planned to move to a nearby hotel yesterday. They have already been given another apartment in the complex, but it will not be ready for two or three days, they said. In the meantime, the Red Cross has given them $90 worth of clothing vouchers and $20 for shoes.
Red Cross volunteer Ray Beery said yesterday that 15 apartment residents are staying at the nearby John Yancey Motor Hotel while many more were staying with relatives. Several apartment occupants were away for the weekend, he said, and had not returned.
Building manager June Sherwood said she would house as many people as possible in vacant apartments in the sprawling 700-unit complex where the fire occurred.
Red Cross volunteers, meanwhile, were not only giving food and clothing vouchers to those who lost everything but had set up an account at a nearby Denny's restaurant so the homeless will be able to eat. The volunteers estimated immediate relief costs would add up to about $10,000.
Some residents who tried to retrieve belongings yesterday afternoon were turned away by fire inspectors and security guards.
Ann Fones, who lived in a basement apartment, said she was bathing her 22-month-old baby Heather when she heard the fire engines at about 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Fire officials refused to let her in to get clothes for the baby or her glasses yesterday.
"Things are a bit blurry," she said.
Diana Regan, who lived in a basement apartment underneath the main fire area, managed to peer into her apartment window. "There was about four or five inches of water on the floor," she said, adding, however, that there did not seem to be any serious damage.
"I thought I saw something hanging down from the ceiling, but I don't know what it was," she said.
She said she was watching television when she noticed the smoke. "They didn't even come and get us," she said. She spent the night at her parents' home.
"It's my husband's birthday today," she said. "He's coming back from Ocean City, but he doesn't know about the fire. It's a nice present, isn't it?"
She said people in the apartment above hers had a cage of birds which they left behind when they fled. "Smoke was pouring out of the windows, but this morning they the birds were chirping."
Fire and arson inspector Ray Motes, who collected evidence and took photographs of the scene yesterday afternoon, said the fire started in a bedroom of a third-story apartment.
Flames quickly spread to the attic and along the roof, and Motes said four or five apartments were destroyed. Large sections of the roof dangled into rooms of six apartments yesterday afternoon, and none of the residents of the three-story row of garden apartments had been allowed to move back in.