WASHINGTON — Denver Broncos fans packed Penn Quarter Sports Tavern on Sunday like they have for nearly a decade, 150 people strong in orange and blue jerseys, sweaters and jackets and even a man in a team yarmulke.
Mid-Atlantic fan club members went through their usual game day rituals as the Broncos battled the San Diego Chargers. They clapped three times above their head and yelled "whoosh" when the Broncos got a first down. They chanted "IN-COM-PLETE," when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers missed on passes, just as fans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High do. They bunched together in anxious group hugs on third downs, bracing themselves for success or failure.
But they did not have a tradition to turn to for consolation when they spoke about Marie Gemmell.
A long-time member, Gemmell was killed Dec. 8 when the wing of a twin-engine jet broke apart and slammed into her Gaithersburg home, engulfing it in an explosion. Gemmell, 36, and her 3-year-old son Cole and 6-week-old son Devon were found dead in an upstairs bathroom, where Montgomery County authorities said she had used her body to shield them from the heat. The plane's pilot and two passengers were also killed.
"It's devastating to all of us," said Ron Campbell, 33, president of the Broncos fan group.
Gemmell and her husband had been active members until a couple of years ago because three young kids became too many to leave at home or with a baby sitter. But they stayed in contact with Campbell and helped organize tailgate parties whenever the Broncos played in the area.
At halftime Sunday, Campbell, wearing a blue Champ Bailey jersey, stood on a chair with a megaphone and informed the bar crowd of Gemmell's death and a fundraiser the group was taking up for Gemmell's husband, Ken, and 7-year-old Anabelle, who were not at home during the crash..
"That's what we do here," Campbell told the crowd. "It's not just to sit here and watch these games and enjoy each other but we're kind of a family."
In a transient city such as Washington, the group was where many Mile High transplants and other Broncos supporters could always count on seeing familiar faces. Hilary Tilkens, one of the club's organizers, says she tells her parents in Oklahoma that she's with her "Broncos family" when they ask what she's up to, and her parents feel heartened knowing she has a steady group of friends.
"D.C. is awesome but you got to find a niche," said Tilkens, 29, who wore a plush horse's head hat and a vintage Karl Mecklenburg jersey. "For us Broncos fans, we're that niche. ... I've never found a group so committed to its members."
The group is where Janis Johnston, 57, became more than a friend to Campbell and others but "mom," which is what they call her. The analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been a lifelong Broncos fan.
She joined the D.C. group about seven years ago, and said its played a central part in her life. When her son was injured in a motorcycle accident three years ago, the group raised money for his care.
Gemmell, Johnston said, was "part of us." She was the group's second sudden death in three years. In 2011, Colorado native Erika Langhart, 24, died after two heart attacks on the day before Thanksgiving.
Her parents knew the fan club had played a big part in her life, and came to the Penn Quarter Tavern for a subsequent Broncos game. The game-day watch party turned into an informal memorial service, members said.
A month later, the group received a gift from Langhart's parents: A framed, signed John Elway jersey. The group erects the framed jersey on the wall at games to make sure Langhart is always remembered.
As the game dragged on, fans devoured orange Jello shots and a Broncos devotee walked around handing out homemade cookies from a tupperware dish. Hugs, pints of beer and high fives were shared as the Broncos widened a lead.
"I feel they represent more than a football team," Campbell said.
That became evident as people slipped cash into his hands for the family fundraiser on the way out.