INDIAN HEAD - Four days after fleeing the chaotic firestorm set off by arsonists in his Charles County development, Derrick Potts returned yesterday to get a good look at the damage. He found a surreal and devastating scene:
The neighborhood's semi-rural calm had been restored, but many of the massive luxury houses stood like skeletons of blackened wood and singed brick. His home was virtually untouched, while others had been reduced to piles of rubble.
It looked "like a battleground - something that you would see on TV, like a war," Potts said.
Authorities said yesterday they have finished the on-site phase of their investigation, and they turned the Hunters Brooke subdivision back over to the developer. The decision meant families could finally walk into the community again and see how their new homes had fared.
Most were coming to see what was left of buildings that were still under construction when the arsonists struck. Potts and his girlfriend, Terri Rookard, were the only family living in the area when the fires were set, investigators said. They had moved there from Prince George's County on Dec. 2 and were uprooted in the predawn hours Monday - when their eldest child woke them to say the neighborhood was ablaze. The family sped down the streets of the subdivision as ashes rained down on their car.
Twenty-six homes in various stages of construction were damaged by the four-alarm blaze. Nineteen of the house fires were ruled arson, and the other seven burned dwellings suffered less costly "collateral damage" that caused panels of vinyl siding to curl and warp from the flames' intense heat.
$10 million in damage
Ten of the homes were completely destroyed. The damage estimate stands at $10 million.
Fire officials have said that they believe more than one person was responsible for setting the fires in Hunters Brooke, a high-density community near a protected bog that has been at the center of a fierce environmental debate.
The controversy over land use led to speculation that eco-terrorists were responsible for the fires, though those leading the investigation have stressed that such groups are not their main focus and that a motive has not been established.
Investigators also have declined to comment about the arsonists' methods. But a source close to the case said yesterday that buckets of a liquid accelerant were found in many of the burned homes, and that the method of ignition was "primitive."
Shortly after the blaze was brought under control, the entire neighborhood was declared a crime scene, and homeowners were kept out so that investigators could proceed with the task of evidence collection.
Some families took up temporary residence at relatives' homes. The Rookard-Potts family was forced to stay in a hotel for four days. Yesterday, as more than 100 detectives and analysts from local, state and federal agencies left the scene to began interviewing residents and following leads in Indian Head, Potts got word they could move back in.
Two blocks away, under gray clouds and misty rain, Rafael Nunez was scheduling his own move, setting up utility readings and shuttling furniture through the doors of his new home.
"I'm stoked," he said, offering an impromptu tour of the 5,700-square-foot house - a stately gray-and-white home with neat burgundy shutters - where he and his wife will begin living next week.
Nunez could barely hold back a smile while showing off the kitchen's sparkling granite countertops, stylish master bathroom and huge basement - which he labeled "the man's lair."
But sorrow and guilt have clouded his feelings of joy, he said.
"This is what they took away from people," said Nunez, standing in his home's grand foyer. "It's like a Catch-22: You've got to feel so sorry for the people whose houses [burned]," he said. "I almost feel bad to feel happy."
Homeowners' resolve untouched
Though still trying to comprehend the magnitude and devastation of the fires, Nunez and Potts said the arsonists' actions have not made them question their new neighborhood.
"You gotta live your life. You can't always be scared," said Nunez, a government contractor who said he's become used to dealing with terror since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Potts, a Washington police officer, said his girlfriend was still trying to cope with the destruction that surrounds their home. But his resolve to stay put is strong, Potts said, adding that the sharp memory of burning homes will soon fade for him and the rest of his family.
"I'm not going to let that incident stop me from having a good life with my children," he said. "A setback ... that's all it is. It will make the community stronger."
He added, "It does feel good to just be back home."