Farin and Debbie Crone, former Christian missionaries with nine children who are all squeezed into an Elkridge rental duplex with one bathroom, were looking forward to Christmas in a new home.
The Crones were to settle tomorrow on Howard County's first Habitat for Humanity house, a pale-yellow split-level in Columbia. Moving day was set for Friday.
But that was before a fire broke out Monday night, causing extensive charring and smoke and water damage to the interior of the house.
"All my thoughts were focused on us being in there for Christmas," said Debbie Crone.
She wept when she first heard the news. But on further reflection, the family saw the mishap as a blessing.
"I'm just so thankful for the timing," she said. "It's a blessing in itself because a week later, we would have been in the house."
No one was injured, and no personal property was lost in the fire. County fire investigators had yet to determine a cause.
The fire, discovered by Habitat volunteer Mark Webster just after dark Monday, set back three years of planning and more than eight months of construction by volunteers of the faith-based housing group. Repairs are likely to take at least three months.
Completing the house was a milestone for the group in a county where the median home price is $395,000 and affordable lots are hard to find. Habitat is looking for a home lot now for another family.
"I really felt for the Habitat people" after all the work they had put into the project, Debbie Crone said. None of the family has seen the damage to the house.
Crone, who home-schools her children, said that although she broke down when she got initial word of the fire Monday night from Habitat Chairman Bob Warner, she quickly recovered. Her husband never faltered, she said. And the children proved even more resilient.
"I just think his faith is a lot stronger than mine," she said. Her husband believes, she said, that "God's in control of everything - and this, too."
The children remained confident, she said, because they know they will get to move into the new house - just not as soon as they had hoped.
Karis, 13, the Crones' eldest daughter, told her younger sisters, "Well, this just means we have longer to get closer as sisters," Debbie Crone said. Their five daughters share one bedroom.
Friends threw the family a house shower Sunday at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, and the children got gift certificates they used to buy bedding and things for their rooms - all of which now will go into storage in a friend's basement.
The new house has four bedrooms and a bathroom for the children on the ground floor, and a master bedroom, bath, kitchen and dining area, and living room on the top level. The two older boys and the two younger ones will share bedrooms, while the two older girls and the three younger will also share bedrooms.
Now that they know they are staying for a while, the Crones have begun decorating their Elkridge duplex for Christmas, using decorations they had hoped to put up in their new home.
Warner said it would likely take at least three months to rip out damaged walls, waterlogged carpets and burned kitchen cabinets and appliances and replace them.
"We're devastated. We had set ourselves a goal to be able to have this family able to spend Christmas in their new home. That was our driving force," Warner said.
The fire burned most of the interior of the second floor of the 2,000-square-foot home. Water damaged the walls and carpeting of the four bedrooms downstairs, and Warner said he thinks some roof trusses and most of the walls and floor covering would have to be replaced.
Habitat has contractors insurance on the house, he said, which he hopes will pay for professional, not volunteer, repairs, which should speed up the process.
"We couldn't believe it," Warner said, recalling the call he got from Habitat volunteer Webster, who discovered the fire when he stopped to check on the house about 5:20 p.m. Monday.
Webster said he stopped to check on the house after work as he does most evenings, but heard its smoke alarms going off and smelled smoke when he got out of his car on Harriet Tubman Lane.
When he opened the front door, thick black smoke poured out, he said. Webster quickly closed it and called for help on a cell phone. A quick look through a side window revealed flames in the kitchen.
"The fire extended out the roof eaves in the back," he said.
By the time firefighters arrived from the Banneker Fire Station in Columbia, "It was rolling pretty well," he said.
"My first feeling goes to the family supposed to occupy that house," Webster said. "I can't get them out of my mind."