Just before she walked out of her house for the very last time, Lourine Cooney pulled three coats off hangers in a blackened closet, looked them over, sniffed them gingerly, then said, “I think I finally found something that made it through the fire.”
Her father built the little brick house in Potomac Falls in 1959, and she grew up here, sharing a big bed in a small room with her sister, playing flashlight tag in the yard with neighborhood kids while their parents played card games inside, watching her mom cook breakfast for neighbors who didn’t get it at home.
“Everyone took care of everyone back then,” she said.
Her own two children grew up in the same house, always full of friends staying for a cookout — or for a few months, while they got back on their feet.
“They’re the ones that have taken care of so many of us,” said John Riordan, who knows the family through Boy Scout Troop 761. “They’re the kind of people who glue a community together. The Cooneys are the ones that have everyone over, that initiate everyone knowing each other. They bring everyone else together.”
Crystal Berry knew Lourine and Tom Cooney in passing because her 18-year-old son was in the Boy Scouts with their son Alex. When her lease ended recently without a new house to move into, she was surprised that they said she and her son should come and stay with them — with the dogs she had already agreed to take care of through a home business.
Berry and her son lived there for several months. “They are just wonderful, good-hearted, positive people,” she said.
So when the Cooneys’ house — a place so full of character in the midst of a region so full of uniform rows of brand-new homes — was destroyed a few days before Christmas, the community came together to help.
The Cooneys had gone to the White House to see the National Christmas Tree last Saturday night, an annual tradition. They brought along Tom’s 87-year-old mother and some friends.
Driving home through Loudoun County, they kept hearing sirens. Firetrucks raced past them as they turned into their neighborhood. At a stop sign, Lourine saw flames through the trees and jumped out of their Chevy Tahoe SUV, gasping, “That’s our house!” Alex, 18, ran after her. Daughter Olivia, 15, couldn’t breathe.
They got there in time to see the fire spread to the 1995 Pontiac Bonneville that Alex had recently finished restoring. Tires shot off, one landing in a neighbor’s yard. The car exploded. Flames spread past the bedroom her parents had slept in, and Lourine stopped thinking it could be contained.
She called her dad.
Still, she said, it didn’t really sink in until she saw the house the next day. Roof, attic and ceilings were gone, and almost every surface was black. Wires and mangled, melted ceiling fans dangled from overhead, tracing patterns against the blue sky. Tufts of insulation, like burnt cotton candy, poked out of walls. Silvery charred wood, like the last logs from the fireplace, lay incongruously on top of her bed, alongside a pair of sneakers and a burnt Rolodex.
The skeleton of a wreath hung on one door, and a tiny gold present lay in mounds of ashes underfoot.
But by Christmas Eve, Tom felt overwhelmed: “Blessed,” he said.
They were all safe. And an investigator had told them that if they had been home, they might not have survived.
People brought armloads of coats and hats. Neighbors hunted for the family’s border collie, Brooke, and finally found her, whimpering but unhurt. The Red Cross had gotten them a hotel room. Friends convinced one store to donate a Christmas tree and another the decorations. Sixteen new presents somehow were under the tree in their room.
Neighbors they didn’t know walked up the driveway with a letter and a bundle of gift cards, from $15 to $500. The Boy Scout troop where Tom had helped scores of kids earn merit badges, and watched his son become an Eagle Scout as he had decades before, set up a fundraiser. An old friend brought Tom the things he would need for all the insurance paperwork: an accordion file, a stapler, stamps.
And a relative — never known for being sentimental — had hunted down all his photos of the family and framed each one for them, knowing theirs were surely all lost.
The Cooneys’ house was amazing, Riordan said, every inch of it elaborately themed. “You could do a tour,” he said.
The fire, which investigators said was an accident caused by an electrical short in the attic, wiped all that out. The basement — which had been redone like a log cabin, with a home theater — was full of water from the fire hoses. The antique grandfather clock was just a stump, its glass face blown out. The master bedroom, which Lourine had decorated in French country style, all creams and pale colors, was blacked out. In Alex’s room, the only signs of the nautical theme was a darkened model of the Titanic, listing on its side.
On Friday, Lourine took the jean jacket and two JROTC coats from her daughter’s bedroom closet, which was the least damaged, in hopes that a good cleaning could salvage them. “Clothes are so expensive,” she said.
An investigator, wearing a white jumpsuit, rubber boots and a yellow hard hat, brought a darkened but just-discernible family photo out, and Lourine and Tom held it for a moment and smiled. They also found a family heirloom, a wooden cross from the 1800s.
Alex eased open the door of his car — “V6, new paint job” — and stepped back as a shower of tiny glass shards fell out.
Lourine had hoped to find just one thing: A belt that once belonged to her uncle, who died a few years ago. She was wearing it last Saturday but had taken it off just before they drove into the District. But seeing the sooty piles of rubble Friday, she knew it was hopeless.
She turned away, choking back tears, as she tried to describe it. “It was just nice because he gave it to me,” she said.
After the new year, Alex leaves for the Coast Guard. Olivia goes back to high school and JROTC. Lourine and Tom will be figuring out how to rebuild their house. “I feel like for me, the lesson learned here is don’t get so caught up with tangible things,” Lourine said. “I don’t need to worry about possessions.” Her family is safe.
“And a nice thing is,” she said, “we were given so many coats and hats — people have been amazing — we will be able to give back to the community.
“I’d like to find a family that’s in immediate need.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.