When Randy Best left the tin-roofed farmhouse off Slidell Road in rural Montgomery County shortly after midnight, his friends and relatives were sitting around the kitchen table, playing poker and listening to country music. The wood stove in the living room was burning "so fine and so hot," Best said, "that it would run you clear out of the house."
At 2:30 a.m. yesterday, a fire caused by that heater swept through the 80-year-old frame structure, killing six of the 11 residents, including two children.
The others managed to escape the burning house by jumping through the windows of their second-story bedrooms before firefighters arrived, according to friends and relatives who talked to the survivors. One of the survivors, Margaret Carter, ran almost half a mile up a deeply rutted dirt road to the nearest neighbor's house to telephone the fire department.
The fire was the deadliest in the Washington area since seven persons were killed and 13 injured in a house fire in the Shaw neighborhood of the District of Columbia in February 1984. It was the worst in Montgomery County since 1953, when 13 people died in a nursing home blaze.
The house, located in the hilly and isolated Boyds area of the county, was home to a collection of relatives and friends involved in the roofing and construction business who had pooled their resources to pay the $275-a-month rent, relatives said. The residents had lived there less than six months.
County fire officials last night identified the dead as Robert Douglas Barnhouse, 38, a roofer; his son, Michael Barnhouse, 20; Joan Vivian King, 33, described by neighbors as the girlfriend of Robert Barnhouse; her 12-year-old daughter, Regina King; Glenn Edward Barnhouse, 30, also a roofer and a cousin of Robert Barnhouse, and 2-year-old Samantha Seabolt, the daughter of Glenn Barnhouse's girlfriend, Beverly Seabolt.
Those injured were Douglas Wayne Barnhouse, 21, Donna Marie Smith, 32, David Lee Myers, 28, Beverly Seabolt, 23, and Margaret Louise Smith, 25.
Beverly Seabolt, the most seriously injured of the survivors, was listed in critical condition in the burn unit of the Washington Hospital Center with smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on her hands, according to a hospital spokesman.
Fire investigators said a wood-burning stove in the house caused the fire. Fire Capt. Ray Mulhall said one of the survivors told investigators she was awakened by the sound of an explosion, followed by a swishing sound.
John Mills, 29, the stepson of Robert Barnhouse, said he rushed to nearby Shady Grove Adventist Hospital when he learned of the fire, and there he talked to one of the survivors, David Myers.
According to the account Myers gave Mills, Myers was awakened by the explosion and ran into the hallway, burning his feet on the already-hot floor of his second-story bedroom. He found that the flames from the living room were already leaping up the stairs. He kicked the glass from a window, and he and his girlfriend, Margaret Carter, jumped the eight-foot distance to the ground.
In the meantime, other members of the household were trying to escape, and Myers went back inside as Carter ran to a neighbor's house, Mills said. Myers found Glenn Barnhouse, apparently overcome from smoke inhalation, lying in a downstairs room.
"David said he tried to drag Glenn out," Mills said. "He had pulled him about 10 feet when he David started coughing and gasping and he had to run out to breathe. He said when he ran back in a second time, Glenn whispered to him to save himself."
Myers told Mills that as he ran outside once more to breathe, the porch collapsed, blocking the entrance to the house.
Bill Mills of Gaithersburg, a brother of John Mills, said he arrived at the scene at 4:30 a.m. as about 50 firefighters were getting the blaze under control. He watched, he said, as the firefighters removed the bodies. Under the body of Glenn Barnhouse, he said, was the tiny body of Samantha Seabolt, the child he apparently tried to save.
"This place was a shack," said Bill Mills. "It wasn't fit to live in."
Mills, who owns a plumbing business, said his stepfather had invited him to the house Wednesday to talk about the cost of installing a new shower. Other relatives said that Glenn Barnhouse had recently reroofed part of the house.
The house was in a farming community of hollows and thick woods, cornfields and brown-and-white cows. The Barnhouse family has always lived in the area, relatives said. Neighbor Jerri Oglesby, a 32-year-old teacher in the Montgomery County schools, described the residents as "a basic rural community family."
"They pretty much kept to themselves," she said.
At midday, the ruins still smoking in places, the firefighters gone, a cluster of a dozen friends and relatives began to venture past the yellow police lines to examine the rubble. Few things were recognizable -- a metal pail, blackened bedsprings, a child's bicycle charred by the fire.
DeWitt Barnhouse, who lost his brother Glenn, sighed and shook his head. "It hurts," he said, tapping his chest with his hand. "It hurts right here."