Randy Marchman stood quietly in the small banquet hall, surrounded mostly by strangers, feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Though few knew him personally, all had come to help him on this October night.
Marchman's wife, Beth, was seven months pregnant in July when she was driving her Geo Tracker west on Interstate 66 with the couple's 2-year-old son, Zak, in a child safety seat in the rear. Near Route 123, traffic had quickly ground to a halt from an accident ahead.
A Chevrolet pickup truck driven by a Maryland man who did not see Marchman's stopped Geo slammed into the Tracker, causing the small Jeep-like vehicle to burst into flames. Zak was killed, as was his unborn sister. Their 33-year-old mother was badly burned and severely injured.
Today, nearly three months later, the horrific story still sucks the breath out of people when they hear it, especially because it is easy for Northern Virginia drivers to imagine that it could have been them stopped on traffic-choked I-66 on a routine summer morning. Living an everyday existence one moment, engulfed in tragedy the next.
The collective identification with such a moment, and the realization of the Marchmans' terrible loss, galvanized the family's neighborhood of Greenbriar. The big-hearted way the community has responded to the accident says a lot about Greenbriar specifically, but also about Northern Virginia.
"It means so much," Beth Marchman said in a statement last week, "that our community has rallied around us in our darkest and most grief-stricken moments."
Residents of the small community in the Chantilly area have donated time and money to the Marchman family through a series of events large and small, including a benefit dinner Oct. 2, where Randy Marchman found himself overcome with emotion. The community has raised more than money for the Marchmans; it also has raised their spirits.
The spontaneous outpouring of support was typical of Greenbriar, many residents said. The planned development of about 1,900 homes and 4,000 residents was launched in the late 1960s. It is bounded by Route 50, Stringfellow Road, Fairfax County Parkway and Fair Lakes Parkway.
"I've lived in a lot of places," said Melanie Florence, a Greenbriar resident, "and I've found that the Greenbriar community is much more cohesive than the other places I've lived. People tend to stay here. A generation of kids grew up here, and now they're returning to this subdivision to raise their kids. There's a lot of community pride. People watch out for other people here."
Within hours of the crash, neighbors had gathered at the Marchmans' house on Point Hollow Lane to divide up duties such as feeding the family, maintaining their house and caring for their pets during the months ahead. Support was also provided for the Marchmans' 13-year-old son, Logan.
Both friends and strangers wanted to help, but there was only so much room in the Marchmans' refrigerator for food. Other avenues of generosity soon opened.
Friends who visited Beth Marchman at Washington Hospital Center realized that her care would involve plenty of blood, so they organized a blood drive. Scheduled for five hours, it lasted for nine. Some donors waited three hours. In the end, 109 units were collected, and 49 more units were donated at a second blood drive.
Greenbriar residents who did not know Beth Marchman brainstormed for a way they could help with funeral costs and rising medical bills. They came up with the idea of an ice cream social. Held in the parking lot of the Greenbriar pool, customers voluntarily paid $150 or more for an ice cream cone. The people who came ate 36 gallons of ice cream and raised a fat $6,000.
Another Greenbriar resident, about to move outside the area, had planned to donate his 1987 Volvo station wagon to charity but gave it to the Marchmans instead.
A neighborhood teenager launched a Web site about the Marchmans, www.marchman.dork.cx, and the Greenbriar Flyer, the community's widely read newspaper, for which Beth Marchman is an editor, closely covered developments in the story. Checks began pouring in from around the country, even from Australia and Canada. A woman in Oklahoma sent the family a homemade quilt.
In South Riding, a nearby community in Loudoun County, more strangers stepped up. Massage therapist Charlene Monine and chef Betsy Jaffe organized the Oct. 2 benefit dinner and silent auction even though they had never met the Marchmans. Held in the banquet room of the Arcola fire station, the dinner raised more than $10,000.
That evening, Randy Marchman gazed around at the diners inspecting the auction tables, with items such as a Joe Theismann-autographed football helmet, airline tickets and an eight-piece china setting.
"The surprising part of all this has been the people that we don't even know doing stuff like this," he said. "It makes me happy to see people doing such a good thing."
Monine said she had never organized an auction, but it went off almost flawlessly.
"I think everyone I've come in contact with said, 'I wish I could do something,' " Monine said. "When you hear that story, you say, 'Oh, my God.' It's everyone's worst nightmare."
Among the Greenbriar residents who showed up at the dinner and auction was Mary Morrow, who has lived there since 1968. She does not know the Marchmans.
"I'm here to support the family," she said. "I live in Greenbriar, but I'd be here even if I didn't. This could've happened to any of us."
About three dozen people attended the dinner, for which Jaffe prepared and served a Mediterranean menu that included chicken marbella, orzo with roasted vegetables and chocolate pate. Jaffe said she, too, was moved by the Marchmans' story and was trying to help in any way she could.
Another of the Marchmans' neighbors, Janine Browning, said there are many families with young children in the neighborhood. "We all knew little Zak, and it was just a matter of everybody being so horrified," Browning said. "We all pulled together and asked, 'What can we do?' Everybody wanted to do everything."
On the afternoon of the July 20 accident, as Beth Marchman was in intensive care with her husband at the hospital, her friends and neighbors gathered outside her house. One neighbor volunteered to mow the lawn. Another took on tending the gardens. Someone else hired a cleaning service for inside the house. Another person volunteered to care for the family's dogs.
"There was no finger-pointing, 'You do this, you do that,' " Browning said. "People just said, 'I'll do that.' "
Several fathers in the neighborhood headed for the hospital to be with Randy Marchman.
"We're all very much aware of each other," Browning said. "This is not a street where you don't know your neighbors."
Within 10 days, Browning had organized the blood drive. Dan Bickham and Dallas Slemp, two retired Fairfax County firefighters who had pulled Beth Marchman from her burning Tracker, attended because "we all have children," Slemp said.
On the east side of Greenbriar, women who didn't know the Marchmans decided to pitch in with the ice cream social. They tried to purchase 24 gallons of ice cream from Briggs Ice Cream Co., but the company refused payment and then donated an additional 12 gallons. A Greenbriar resident who owns a local Baskin-Robbins store provided dry ice and storage for the ice cream, along with cones and sprinkles.
The ice cream social organizers were determined to remain anonymous. One of them said Beth Marchman "doesn't know us anyway. That's the way it should be. So many people volunteered their time. This block is full of moms like us. We called ourselves 'The Ladies Who Get Things Done.' "
On Aug. 20, the ladies weren't the only ones getting things done. Children in the neighborhood offered to bake cookies, and soon a bake sale table was part of the ice cream social. That brought in nearly $2,000 more.
"People were coming up to the stand with $20 for two or three cones, saying, 'Keep the change,' " one of the organizers said. "People were writing checks for $200 or $300. It brought some of us to tears."
Emerson Cale, president of the Greenbriar Civic Association, said the community uses a number of means to stay connected, including block captains who spread news and publicize upcoming events, the Chantilly Youth Association sports leagues and the Greenbriar Flyer, the all-volunteer newspaper that Beth Marchman is planning to take over as editor in chief.
Last month, the driver of the pickup truck, Matthew R. Cable of Hagerstown, Md., was found guilty of reckless driving and had his driver's license suspended for 180 days. Cable was slightly injured in the accident.
Marchman suffered second- and third-degree burns over 30 percent of her body, plus severe kidney damage that has led to infections, which forced her return to the hospital last month from a rehabilitation center. She is hoping to be released later this month.
"It is a strange feeling," Beth Marchman said in the statement, "to be anonymous one day and the next to see your face and name everywhere. People I've never met sent me hand-stitched quilts and devotionals to comfort me. It's given me a different view of the world. It's not all bad."