Standing outside the charred remains of his family's Ellicott City home, David Strothers said jokingly that he'd been sporting the same new Adidas warm-up suit for over a week.
His wife, Sherry, made a similar claim, modeling new jeans and black boots that a friend purchased for her the day after finding her shoeless at the foot of the couple's driveway, watching her house burn, at 12:45 a.m. Jan. 17.
The couple laughed about being wardrobe-challenged after barely escaping a two-alarm fire that raged as they slept and has left them and their two teenage sons temporarily homeless. The black humor, they say, helps stem the tears — sometimes.
"I still feel like I cry 10 times a day, every day," said Sherry Strothers, a freelance TV host and active community volunteer. "We all escaped, and that's all that matters, but it could have easily been a very different story."
What is really bolstering the family's spirits, as they cope with the depth of loss that accompanies an estimated $400,000 in damages, is the "amazing outpouring of love and support" that their Centennial-area neighbors, friends and co-workers have shown them, said David Strothers, an assistant principal at Glenelg High School.
Though the family has insurance, neighbors and friends have been helping them bridge the gap until the check arrives. The parents are liiving at an extended-stay hotel, and the sons have been put up by family friends who live nearby.
"The response has just been overwhelming," he said. "I've called my mother in Ohio to tell her what's going on here, and she can't believe the stories we're telling her. People could not have been any more supportive."
On Tuesday night, principals and teachers from around Howard County waited in line for up to an hour for a table at Jilly's, a restaurant where Glenelg staff had organized an event that ended up raising $3,000 for the family.
Two websites have been set up to allow people to sign up to cook and deliver dinners or to donate kitchen wares, household goods and small appliances. Students and staff at Centennial High and Burleigh Manor Middle schools are collecting gift cards and other items for the family.
Neighbors have turned over keys to their homes, lent cars and cellphones, written checks and even put out food for the Strotherses' cat, Boots, in hopes he might find his way back home. (He did.) Even Mr. Jelly the frog managed to hide under a coconut shell in his aquarium and survive, spurring one parent to add crickets to her shopping list.
"It was hard to accept all these things at first," David said. "But one parent made it very clear to me that we need to receive these blessings. He said, 'Let me do this for you since you would do it for me.'
"The community has wrapped its arms around us, and that support is helping us heal in a way that I can't describe," he said.
Centennial High PTSA President Bonnie Sorak has been working with Robin Thomas, a neighbor and close friend, to try to anticipate the Strotherses' needs and find ways to meet them, Sorak said. They've put an extra emphasis on gathering photos and videos of the boys, since Sherry's biggest sorrow is the loss of her extensive collection of mementos that chronicle her sons' childhoods and special moments.
"[This] type of tragedy … is the kind that everybody fears … in the blink of an eye it could be one of us dealing with this," Sorak said, explaining the community's response.
"But it's also because of who they are," Sorak said. "She's a PTSA volunteer and he's a basketball coach, and they've done a lot of good in the community. People respond when they know someone's in a bad situation. That's what a community does."
Thomas said the enormity of the devastation really hit her when she saw the extent of the fire damage during daylight hours, calling the sight "terrifying."
"We all pray that people would do the same for us if we were in their shoes," she said. "Sherry and Dave will pay this forward — that's the type of people they are."
A raging inferno
Sherry was asleep on the sofa in the TV room when midnight struck, ending the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. She had dozed off waiting for her washing machine to finish its cycle.
She had no way of knowing that an intense fire was already burning in the two-car garage on the other side of the wall.
After the load of laundry spun to a stop, she had planned to pop her younger son's Centennial High School basketball uniform into the dryer, unplug the exterior Christmas lights she insisted stay up each year as a private tribute to King, and head to bed. Her husband and sons were already asleep in their rooms upstairs.
But Sherry was startled awake about 12:30 a.m. by her husband's frantic screaming that their house was on fire. David, who said he's never been happier to be a light sleeper, had been aroused by an unusual popping noise he described as car backfire; neighbors would later say it sounded like small explosions. Thinking someone was tampering with his wife's van in the driveway, he peered out the master bedroom window to see thick smoke billowing past, and he raced downstairs to check it out.
Anthony, 17, and Chad, 15, had heard the commotion and yelling, so they were scrambling into clothes when their parents came racing upstairs to fetch them. They rounded up their two dogs, Rusty, an 11-year-old chocolate Lab, and Bear, a 3-year-old cockapoo. Sherry grabbed her purse, which happened to be near the front door, and they all dashed outside to discover "an inferno" just as the second-floor smoke alarm sounded.
"Two more minutes, and the outcome would have drastically changed," David said. "We are so blessed."
As flames engulfed their garage and spread up the left side of their center-hall Colonial and into the attic, family members said they realized they had barely escaped with their lives. Visible through the garage's empty shell and the blackened two-by-fours that framed the house is the headboard of Chad's bed, next to where an exterior wall had stood.
The couple said a possible source of the fire was the orange, heavy-duty extension cord that connected the Christmas lights on the bushes by the front porch to the nearest outlet inside the garage.
A firefighter told them that the weight of the garage door might have compressed wiring inside the cord, causing it to heat up and catch fire, though the cause is still under investigation, according to Jackie Cutler, county fire and rescue services spokeswoman.
The house to the left of the Strotherses' home sustained fire damage as well, displacing three residents who are staying with neighbors down the street, Cutler said.
"We've run a cord under the garage door every Christmas since we've lived here, which is 18 years now," Sherry said she'd told the firefighter. "He replied that everybody does it, but no one should."
The firefighter also advised the couple that garages should be equipped with a heat sensor, since car exhaust would set off a smoke alarm. This device is important because garages are the place where homeowners store accelerants that feed fires, such as gasoline, lawn chemicals and cans of paint.
"I hope people can learn from our story," Sherry said. "We thought we were doing things the right way, the safe way. Two of the first things we will install when we rebuild are a heat sensor and exterior outlets."
The couple, who moved into their home in April 1994, plan to rebuild because they love the community. In fact they had just recently had a new roof, siding and shutters installed, "making it look like a new home" before the fire, David said.
Since rebuilding could take a year or more, the couple has located a rental home within the Centennial district and plan to move in Feb. 1.
"Now we'll be focusing on piecing everything back together," David said. "We'll be going back to zero, but we're grateful that we have a place to start. We thank God for what he's done for us."
As they slowly regain their bearings, Sherry conceded that it still seems like there's a long way to go before the darkness lifts.
"But there is light at the end of the tunnel," she said, "and it's this loving, caring community that is helping us see that."