William Shank, 23, was watching television Saturday night when it "felt like the building jumped a foot off the ground and settled back down again."
Fifteen hours after the 7 p.m. jolt, Shank and many of the families forced out of their homes by the violent explosion in Fairfax County's Hybla Valley seemed like refugees in their own neighborhood.
They were't able to go home because their units had been destroyed or evacuated, nor could they leave, because their cars were blocked by police cordons around the complex. Some were wearing clothes that didn't belong to them; others had on what they were wearing when they ran for safety.
Many had eaten meals provided by friends or the Red Cross. All had slept in unfamiliar beds. And many were wandering aimlessly through the streets, dazed by this strange disruption in their lives, in search of camaraderie and calm.
"I was scared, I shook, my stomach was queasy, my knees were weak," said Shank, recalling the moments he spent watching his apartment burn to the ground.
But after the fear came the confusion. "Everything is just rolling around in my head," he said. "You gotta put your life back together."
Yesterday, he realized, half-amused and half-dismayed, that his first job was "buying soap, shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush."
For Sudena White, who lives with her two children at 7232 Fairchild Dr., the first concern yesterday was making sure her 1-year-old son had snapped out of his state of shock.
"He was sitting by the window when the explosion hit and the glass went all over. My little boy was just shaking all over, just shaking." She said that for two hours after the explosion the boy just stared at her.
"He's fine now, he's come around, he's talking," she said. But it's White who said she was just beginning to recover from the effects of having "left so quickly. The only think I got was my door key."
"I had no shoes on, just a housecoat and rollers in my hair," she said. "I just burst out crying in the streets."
The Whites were among the 32 families for whom 10 Red Cross volunteers found shelter in the nearby John Yancey Motel. By 8 p.m., the Red Cross had set up its headquarters in the cafeteria of the Hybla Elementary School across the street from the Southern Manor apartments and was providing hamburgers and donuts to the families waiting to be assigned motel rooms.
Some of the displaced residents and their children walked barefoot to the motel about 250 yards away. Many, still in shock, went sleepless Saturday night. There were those, like Shank, who mourned for the possessions they had lost -- "the little things that my girlfiend had given me." But some, like Carlos Manduley, savored the miracle that had kept them alive.
Manduley and his friend Barbara Wilson lived in the apartment immediately over the laundry room where the explosion originated. They would have been home on Saturday night if the good weather had not made them feel restless. They heard the bad news on television, while visiting a friend at the nearby Suburban Motor Lodge.
"I know there must be somebody watching over me," Wilson said.
Manduley hadn't been shopping in several years, but he spent yesterday afternoon at Zayre's, filling his cart with clothes. Using one of the $125 vouchers distributed by the Red Cross, he bought a $25 polyester jacket to replace the calfskin one he lost. "It was my pride and joy, one of the few things I had," he said. "God, it just tears me up."
Manduley and many of the tenants of 7245 Fairchild Dr. are not insured and face the prospect of having to pay for essentials. "You don't think about these things before they happen," Shank said, "and when they happen you try not to think about them either."