It took six years for James K. Fredericks and his wife, Fay, to save enough money to build their own home, a one-story rancher on an acre of land in Millersville that gave their two children enough room to play.
Yesterday, the $150,000 home on Sonny Drive the family had lived in only three months burned to the ground, taking with it Christmas toys, family collections and every piece of furniture the couple owned.
"It took us six years to build and took only two hours to burn down," said Officer Fredericks, 26, an Anne Arundel County police officer who works in the Northern District station.
The officer and his wife escaped from the blaze about 3 a.m., carrying their two children to safety. Mrs. Fredericks, 28, passed year-old Dylan out a bay window to her husband.
"It was unreal," said Officer Fredericks, who salvaged his service revolver. "I've never been through anything like this before."
Fire officials said the blaze destroyed the home and its contents and burned out a 1988 Dodge mini-van that was parked just a few feet from the wooden house.
Fire Lt. Robert Kornmann said Officer Fredericks had cleaned out his fireplace before going to bed Monday night and put the ashes in a cardboard box, which he placed on the front porch.
The ashes apparently were still hot, and early yesterday they ignited the porch and a side wall, fire officials said. The flames spread to the roof and quickly engulfed the home, Lieutenant Kornmann said.
Fire officials sounded two alarms, bringing 13 fire engines and 45 firefighters to the home off Elvaton Road behind Pasadena Crossroads shopping center.
Officer Fredericks said the ashes felt cool to the touch, but he later learned from a fire marshal that they can stay warm for more than a day.
He said his wife woke up to the sound of a smoke detector going off. "I looked outside my bedroom and down the hall and could see flames licking up the wall," Officer Fredericks said. "I thought this is unreal -- there's a fire outside that's coming in. But that's what it was. I reached over to the phone to dial 911, but of course the phone was dead."
About the same time, a passer-by who saw the flames started banging on the front door. When Officer Fredericks emerged, the unidentified man ran to a neighbor's home and got them to call the fire department.
The officer said he quickly got his 3-year-old son, Kyle, out of the home, and his wife grabbed Dylan from his crib. The family and a collie named Pepper emerged unscathed. Two fish and a kitten named Katie perished.
Yesterday, the family stayed in the home on Elvaton Road, just three doors from their house, that they had rented from Mrs. Fredericks' parents before moving in September.
"This is a tragedy any time," said Tim Phelan, Mrs. Fredericks' brother-in-law. "It is especially a tragedy this time of year. But they have a lot of family around."
In the morning, after the children finally were asleep, the couple went shopping to replace some of the things they had lost. By afternoon, Officer Fredericks was back at his charred home, rummaging through belongings, trying to salvage what remained. But that wasn't much.
The Christmas tree that stood in the bay window was incinerated. The children's presents, which were scattered throughout the house, were gone.
Officer Fredericks' new power tools had melted and a new wedding band his wife had bought him -- replacing the original that he lost -- was missing.
He had placed it on the mantle next to a stocking that had been passed down through two family generations, but that was near where the fire began. Yesterday, he searched unsuccessfully for the ring, digging through piles of burnt remains and snow. He did, however, find candy. "Can you believe that a Hershey's Kiss survived this fire?" he asked, standing bewildered in what used to be his living room.
Some toys in his children's bedrooms made it through the fire. A toy Santa buried beneath a crumbled wall kept playing a garbled Christmas tune, and his wife's files -- all kept in a wooden cabinet -- appeared in good shape.
"We're going to rebuild it just the way it was," Officer Fredericks vowed. "It's amazing how fast this stuff goes."
The Anne Arundel County Police Department is taking up a collection for the Fredericks family and is looking specifically for car seats and clothing for the two children. Anyone who would like to donate is urged to contact Sgt. Bill Darner or Officer Mike Barclay at the Northern District station, 222-6135.