Will Frece walked slowly toward the gated property at the end of Childs Point Road south of Annapolis, knelt down and placed flowers at the gate.
Frece, who once worked with homeowner Don Pyle, then stood at the end of the driveway and stared at the smoldering ruins of the 16,000-square-foot mansion that burned to the ground early Monday.
Pyle, his wife Sandra and four grandchildren are believed to have been in the house at the time of the fire. They remained missing Tuesday, and were feared dead.
"I can't believe it's happening," Frece said. "Even staring at it, it's not real to me."
Fire officials have not confirmed any deaths. But the headmaster of the children's school wrote in a letter to the school community Monday that the Pyles and the grandchildren perished in the fire, and a former county councilman said the children's parents had told him of their deaths.
Plumes of smoke wafted from the house Tuesday, and officials said a fire was still burning in the basement. As firefighters cooled hot spots, workers arrived with a huge crane to begin sifting through the wreckage.
Officials said they would focus on three bedrooms where relatives believe their loved ones were when the fire began. They said they might use search dogs to look for bodies and evidence.
"It will be days, not hours, to get this done," Anne Arundel County Fire Capt. Russ Davies said. He said Monday that officials were working under the assumption that there were people inside the house at the time of the fire.
Family, friends and the community were already deep in mourning. The children's' school canceled classes and brought in counselors to talk with students, parents and teachers. Well-wishers visited the home to pay their respects. A man outside the Riva home of two of the children asked for privacy for the family during "this difficult time."
A makeshift memorial was set up at the gate at 936 Childs Point Road, with flowers, teddy bears and signs that read "We Love You" and "We will miss you."
Painting contractor Gary McGurk said he had worked with the family.
"It's very tragic," he said. "Anything like this, it strikes at the heart of the community."
Tracy Jackson and her children, Caylin and Kyle, laid a stuffed purple bear and an orange lizard next to the growing display. They said they knew the children through the Severn School.
"We want them to know we are praying for them," Jackson said.
Don Pyle is chief operating officer of ScienceLogic, a software firm in Reston, Va. He served as chief executive of Laurel Networks of Pittsburgh and Netcordia of Parole.
He told The Washington Post in October that he grew up in northern Baltimore County and worked in a family business while studying at the University of Delaware.
Friends described the Pyles as kind and generous. A spokesman for the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation said they hosted wine-tasting fundraisers for the nonprofit at their home.
Anura Guruge met and worked with Don and Sandra Pyle when he came to the United States from Britain in 1985. He said Don Pyle took him under his wing, helping him to find a home, taking him to his first baseball game and eventually serving as his best man.
"When you move to a new country, and you're in your 30s, and you need things like credit cards, a bank account, and … where do you go to get a driver's license, he was always there," Guruge said. He called Pyle "a very, very nice person, always helpful, willing to help, always a smile on his face. Both he and Sandy, extremely happy-go-lucky people."
Travis Gray, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, said he has been working with Sandra Pyle since October to sell a house the couple own in the Kingsport neighborhood of Annapolis.
Gray called Sandra Pyle "a really remarkable woman." He learned of the fire on Monday.
"I called her immediately and it went straight to voice mail," he said. "I've been sick to my stomach ever since."
Dispatchers began receiving calls about the fire at about 3:30 a.m. Monday. A neighbor said it "was like an inferno," with flames that "seemed to shoot straight up."
When firefighters arrived, Davies said, the house was "heavily involved," and smoke and flames prevented them from entering.
It took more than 80 firefighters, tanker trucks and a fire boat 31/2 hours to bring the blaze under control. By then, the house was destroyed.
Fire officials said they do not suspect foul play. But they said they would continue to investigate, and treat the property as a crime scene, until they have more information.
The county Fire Department has asked for help from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has equipment that can remove steel bars that collapsed into the basement of the two-story structure. An ATF spokesman said 15 to 20 ATF agents would be involved, but Anne Arundel fire officials would lead the investigation.
Tax records put the value of property — a seven-bedroom, 71/2 bath house built in 2005 on eight acres along Church Creek — at $6.2 million. A representative of the law firm that represents Pyles' insurance company said it was valued at $13.9 million.