Families reeling after fire damages Bethesda house
Two months after tenants moved in, almost nothing of theirs survives flames
Coleen Huggins Hayback and her husband, CF, were allowed back into their house with a fire official for three hours to see what they could find and salvage among the rubble.
Photo from Coleen Huggins Hayback
Coleen Huggins Hayback and her husband, CF, were in Massachusetts — moving the final items out of his apartment — when they got a call from the landlord of their new Bethesda home.
“He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ and I said ‘No,’ ” Coleen recalled in an interview. “And he said, ‘I just found out that the house is on fire. The house is burning.’
“It’s a very powerless feeling, helpless feeling, to not even be near your house when you hear that. And we had just moved in two months ago, so we didn’t know any of our neighbors. I didn’t even have anyone’s phone number.”
The July 2 fire at 6535 Elgin Lane started with a pool vacuum pump near a gas meter, which resulted in an explosion, Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, posted on Twitter at the time.
It took about 85 firefighters to stop the flames, Piringer wrote in a post, adding that an initial damage estimate was $650,000. Nearly all of the Hayback family’s belongings were destroyed.
The Freibaum family, which owns the house and lived there for many years, is devastated, Robert Freibaum said in an interview. He said his family moved into the house in 1958 and now rents it out.
Freibaum, who now lives in New Market, Md., was one of four siblings who went through the local schools — Bannockburn Elementary, Pyle Middle, Whitman High.
His father was a PTA president and his mother was a nursery school director, he said.
He said his family has not heard a final report on how the fire started or the total extent of the damage.
Freibaum said his family has developed a good relationship with the Haybacks and feels terrible for them, too.
The Hayback family stayed briefly in a neighbor’s basement apartment, but are now staying with a friend in Gaithersburg. They plan to move to a hotel while they search for a new long-term rental.
The family — Coleen, CF, and Coleen’s 13-year-old son, Chase — moved into the Bethesda house from their previous home in Gaithersburg in May.
CF split his time between Maryland and Massachusetts, where he ran a small art gallery, but was preparing to move to Maryland full time. The family was moving CF out of his Massachusetts apartment when the fire happened.
Coleen is a self-employed social media specialist.
The couple, who did not have renters insurance, were allowed to enter the house for the first time on July 10 with a fire official. They sifted through the rubble for three hours before the walls shifted, making the structure more unstable, forcing them to leave.
“It was worse than we thought,” Coleen said. “We were allowed a short window of time to go in, we had to wear hard hats and ventilators and gloves … because the entire house is — it’s soaking wet, mold-infested, smoke-infested, pitch black. … There’s rubble everywhere, and we had to basically do, like, this reconnaissance mission, and go in and try to sift through all of that to take out anything we could possibly think might be salvageable.”
Some neighbors stood outside the house while Coleen and CF went through it, allowing them to toss items out the window instead of going in and out of the house.
“It was a gesture that is just so huge-hearted, because, again, they don’t really know us,” CF said. “Some of them put four hours in managing, handling and dealing with smoky, smelly things, and, I mean, who does that?”
Almost nothing survived the fire. The family recovered kitchenware, one table, Christmas decorations and baby memorabilia that had been in a plastic tub. Almost all of their clothes were too smoke damaged to save. They put everything they might be able to salvage in a moving PODS container.
“Everything that we put in the pod is so smoke damaged that they really probably need to throw most of it away, but now we need to get access to a dumpster,” Coleen said. “There’s still so much work ahead of us.”
Coleen’s friend, Theresa Holbrook, started a GoFundMe page to raise money for them the day after the fire.
Holbrook met Coleen when they both lived in Gaithersburg in 2002, but has since moved to Del Ray Beach, Fla. She said she found out about the fire when a mutual friend called her while she was out to dinner.
“I was actually at dinner with my girlfriend, and I just was horrified,” she said. “Chills were running down our backs and my hair was standing up on my arms, you know. It was just, like, something you just never want to hear.”
The GoFundMe page had raised more than $50,000 as of Wednesday, with more than 470 donors, many of whom are anonymous.
“I said, ‘Hey, I got your back,’” Holbrook said. “You know, I just can’t wait till she can, you know, laugh again and I can be silly with her again.”
Coleen said the generosity of friends, family, neighbors and strangers has helped buoy her family through a difficult time.
“Every time we do check [the GoFundMe], we cry, because we can’t believe how much goodness there is in the world,” Coleen said. “We had all these great hopes, found the perfect house finally for us, and for this to happen, it’s hard to wrap my head around.
“But in all of it, we still are finding hope because of so much love we’re getting, and I really need that to be expressed.”
Managing Editor Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.