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Fire Fighters

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IT TOOK A TEAM OF VOLUNTEERS using 500 two-by-fours and 75 sheets of plywood 11 weeks to build Pat and Gerald Turner’s dream house in Alexandria, Va.—and it took an unidentified arsonist just 10 minutes to burn it to the ground.

For years, Pat Turner, 35, a hotel telephone operator, and her husband Gerald, 43, an airport maintenance worker, talked of moving out of the cramped, two-bedroom apartment they shared with two sons—Dominique, 5, and Darrius, 2—and Gerald’s ailing mother, Frances Tate, 63. But talk was all the Turners could afford. Then, last summer, their luck changed abruptly when Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based Christian housing charity—to which former President Jimmy Carter often donates his time—offered to help build them a modest row house. “It was a dream come true,” says Pat.

But the Turners have not led fairytale lives, and the story of their house is no fairytale either. On July 28, with the home nearly completed, Habitat’s volunteer construction workers began putting up the roof. But shortly after 8:30 that night, a fire that police say was intentionally set reduced all the hard work—and $15,000 in building supplies—to a pile of smoldering ashes. (Two unidentified teens were seen running from the scene.) “When I saw the destruction, it seemed like I had a big void inside,” says Gerald Turner, his hand over his heart. He recalls for a moment the acrid smell of the burnt lumber. “Each time I took a breath,” he says, “it would hurt.”

The pain, however, quickly turned to new hope. Outraged over the fire, 150 of the Turner’s supporters turned out for a hastily organized prayer vigil at the site. Within two days, volunteers, many of them from Alexandria’s Blessed Sacrament Catholic Community, had returned to clear the rubble and post a sign declaring: We Will Rebuild. “I was upset for about half an hour,” says Chris Regan, 37, a construction director for Habitat, which has built homes for some 50,000 needy families around the world since it was founded in 1976. “We were really disappointed, but we knew how important it was to start again as soon as possible.” With donations, and money from an insurance policy, workers armed with hammers and circular saws were back at work in 10 days, determined to meet their original Oct. 2 deadline.

Before the blaze, the volunteers had dubbed the embryonic structure at 710 North Patrick St. Jubilee House. Too often, though, Pat and Gerald Turner have had little to celebrate. They met in 1982 when Pat, then a 21-year-old teacher’s aide living in Arlington, Va., entered a tight-jeans contest at a Washington nightclub. Gerald, a divorced liquor store supervisor with three grown children in the Washington area, was one of the judges. “I won second place,” Pat recalls. “He walked up and said, ‘You should have gotten first.’ ” Unimpressed at first, Pat refused his persistent requests for a date. But when she finally agreed to dinner a month later, Gerald poured on the charm. Although they waited 10 years to marry, they have lived together ever since.

The Turners also lived with a secret: Gerald had been addicted to heroin and alcohol since serving as a Marine Corps corporal stationed in Washington in the early 1970s. “Every morning when he walked out [to work], I would say, ‘Please don’t get high,’ ” says Pat. But after Dominique was born in 1991, she could no longer bear the daily pressure of living with an addict. “I woke up one Saturday morning and said, ‘This is it,’ ” she says. Taking Dominique with her, she moved into a women’s shelter for a week until Gerald agreed to check into a six-month, Veterans Administration drug-rehab program. “So many family members said he’s no good,” says Pat. “I kept saying, ‘He’ll change.’ I knew he’d change.”

Gerald did change. On Oct. 12, he plans to celebrate his third year of sobriety—or “my real birthday,” as he calls it. Though the Turners have met other hardships—both Dominique and Darrius, who was born in 1994, suffer from hyperactivity and delayed development—Gerald’s rehabilitation was a turning point. Two years ago, they enrolled in a program called Adopt-a-Family, run by the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless. “They had made some real mistakes,” says program coordinator Arhelia Finnie, “but they seemed sincere about addressing the issues.” Finnie taught the Turners to set financial goals and monthly budgets. And she referred them to Habitat, which offered to build a modest house in a racially mixed section of Alexandria’s Old Town. The price: 500 hours of volunteer work, or “sweat equity,” and a $3,000 down payment.

Once the house is complete, it will be up to the Turners to make payments on the roughly $70,000 interest-free mortgage. “Every nail and board is put in by someone who cares,” observes Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who represents Alexandria, where housing prices are normally more than $200,000. “In many ways, this may be the most valuable home in the city.”

There is no question in the minds of Pat and Gerald Turner that the Habitat volunteers have given them something invaluable—not just once, but after the devastating fire, twice. “Whoever did this could burn down the structure,” says a grateful Gerald Turner, “but not the love that built it.”