Wallace Gill and two of his three daughters drowned late in the afternoon, when the sun was low and the lazy ripples on Goose Creek shimmered like candles. It was August 1970 when they went to the creek near Chantilly and stopped for a picnic at a bend in a road cut between a hill and a field of summer corn.

Looking back, those who knew the Gills thought it strange that Wallace would go to the creek at all. He couldn't swim, and even at 44 was terrified of the water. His neighbor, Fred Mosser, could never even get him to go sit on the bank of Carter's Pond to do some fishing.

But it had been a beautiful day in waning summer, and when two of Wallace Gill's friends suggested the outing, he went along for the sake of his girls.

This is what Katherine Gill believes. After 20 years of marriage, she knew her husband well enough to know, even if he never said so out loud, that he wished desperately he could have given his daughters more.

"It hurt him when he couldn't get the girls new clothes or shoes for school when he knew all the others kids had new things," says Katherine Gill, 51. "He wanted them to come up better than he did."

Wallace and Katherine had grown up dirt poor in West Virginia: she in Glace, he in a town she can't recall. When they married in 1950, they migrated to Fairfax to find work.

They rented a three-room shack without plumbing for $50 a month near the Chantilly Post Office, and Gill found occasional construction jobs. Working for a Merrifield fencing company in 1969, Gill helped erect a chain-link fence around Potter's Field. At home he raised chickens, rabbits, bees and vegetables in the back yard, and Katherine worked three jobs as a maid, but still they stayed poor.

"I guess a lot of people around here looked at them as kind of out of place," says Georgia Mosser, a neighbor who frequently brought them food when their credit at the grocery ran thin. "They were a little ragged around the edges, but they were good-hearted country folks."

Then for some reason, Wallace Gill put aside his fears and took his daughters on a picnic. Leonard Layman, a family friend also on the outing, remembers that at about 6 p.m. Betty Ann Gill, 16, and Sharon Gill, 12, were wading in Goose Creek within sight of their father. Layman was on his way to the truck with Denise Gill, 8, to get sandwiches and hotdogs.

"Suddenly I heard all this screeching and splashing . . . ," he says. "When I got there all I could see was Wallace's hand above the water. I guess the two girls were already gone. I jumped in, but I can't swim either.

Several hours later, divers untangled the Gills' bodies from a sunken tree under seven feet of water. Police suspect that the girls slipped into a deep section of the creek and that Wallace Gill jumped in to save them.

"You know," says Katherine Gill today, "I don't think they'd have minded being buried in that cemetery. Wallace would have been proud. He helped build that fence around the graveyard. It looks real nice, doesn't it?"