Marcia Hanson, chairwoman of a Lorton community organization, was commuting to work on I-95 yesterday morning when she flipped on the car radio and learned about the mayhem that had broken out nearly seven hours earlier at the Lorton Reformatory.
"I was, needless to say, fuming," the 43-year-old legal secretary said.
Hanson, who is chairwoman of the Federation of Lorton Communities, a group of 10 civic associations, said she is supposed to be notified by Fairfax County officials of any major Lorton disturbance so that neighbors have the option to take precautions, such as locking doors against possible escapees.
It is a frustration that has been voiced repeatedly over the past several years by residents who live in the subdivisions that ring the prison in southeastern Fairfax County. Since 1974, inmates at the District-run prison have staged eight major disturbances and numerous escape attempts.
And even though some neighbors say they have become indifferent to the frequent sounds of sirens and overhead helicopters signaling trouble at the prison, others say the fear and anger mount with each new incident such as yesterday's uprising and outbreak of fires.
Philip Downs, 43, a civic leader from the nearby Pohick Estates, said his subdivision perhaps feels more strongly about Lorton than other neighborhoods because a prison escapee took one family hostage several years ago. Nobody was hurt, but the fear remains.
"We have a park in our neighborhood, and it can't be used during situations like this because the railroad tracks run by it, and the railroad tracks are where they escape to," said Downs who said he learned of yesterday's uprising while watching television at breakfast.
"The first thing I thought," Downs said, is, 'Maybe this is one way we'll get rid of the prison. Maybe they'll burn it down themselves.' Then I started worrying about where are these 1,500 to 1,800 people going to go if the walls cave in, and the fences come down."
Grace A. Mills, another Lorton area resident, awoke about 1 a.m. to the sound of ambulance sirens and helicopters. "I heard plenty of noise," she said. "I'm not very happy here. When you've made this your home for 33 years, and you're 84 years old, there isn't very much that you can do."
She lives with her 99-year-old aunt, and they both worry about the prison. "The more I worry, the sicker I get," Mills said. "But I have to stay here."
The residential areas surrounding Lorton range from subdivisions of working-class residents to bucolic country homes set back on winding roads to the quaint shops of the tiny nearby town of Occoquan.
Kay Smith can see the reformatory from the front porch of her yellow clapboard home. When she awoke early Thursday, it was to the sound of fire trucks, and to the loud overhead clatter of police helicopters. Looking out the upstairs windows, she could see the orange glow of burning prison buildings against the dark sky.
Smith said she doesn't particularly like living next door to the prison and that her husband worries about leaving the couple's teen-aged children alone in the house. But she also loves this rural corner of Fairfax County, with its open fields and winding roads. "Unless there's a riot or something, it's very nice here," she said.
Other residents say they don't fear for their safety, even during major disturbances.
Lilian Javins, 70, lives about two blocks from the prison, and awoke early Thursday to the sound of fire truck and ambulance sirens. Several hours later, even as a major breakfast-time uprising broke out inside the gates, Javins said she didn't fear for her safety. "They're all under control," she said. "They're heavily guarded."
She added that she has lived in the area for 13 years, and that most escaped prisoners head for the District instead of lingering in her neighborhood.
"I'd hate to see it go," she said of the reformatory. "It would all be built up into condominiums or town houses. So far as Lorton's concerned, it doesn't bother me in the least."
"They were busy last night," said Sally Fisher, 39, who lives about 15 houses away from the prison. "I feel they have a great problem there that should be taken care of, and I don't see that the District is doing anything about it at all. They say, 'Yes, we're going to put a facility in the District, but that doesn't happen overnight.' But, of course, it doesn't happen overnight when you're not doing anything about it."
Connie Harris, 28, lives just up Rte. 123 (Ox Road) from the prison. "It doesn't bother me normally, unless something like this happens," she said. Her husband is home most of the time, and the couple keeps at least seven guns in their house. But yesterday's disturbance concerned her more than the others. "This is a little eerie -- are they going to be able to break through this fence?"
Sandra Higham lives in Burke, but she passes the prison each day en route to her Occoquan store, Waterfront Antiques. "I always lock my doors going through there," she said. "You tend to drive a little faster. You just want to get through there."
Higham said she doesn't like reading about periodic escapes, either. "You think, 'Oh, my goodness -- where are they? Are they hiding in a boat? In a bush?' These things run through your mind."