A bride and groom narrowly escaped death as the house they slept in burned down just before their wedding day.
On June 23, a day before Matthew and Coral Denakis were to marry, they joined more than a dozen of their friends and relatives at Coral’s parents’ house in North Potomac, Maryland, to prepare for the couple’s wedding ceremony the next afternoon.
But as everyone went to sleep that night to get rest before the big day, they would soon wake up to a nightmare.
“Around 2:30 in the morning, everyone was quickly woken up by Coral’s parents, and to the smell, smoke and sound of a fire,” Matthew, 23, tells PEOPLE.
Coral’s parents were the first to notice a fire spreading into the house from their garage, and quickly moved to alert their house guests to the life-threatening emergency.
“My dad said he and my mom were laying in bed for a little while thinking someone was cooking,” Coral, 22, recalls. “Then my mom saw the light of the fire outside of her bedroom window and they both jumped up and started grabbing everyone.”
As everyone rushed to escape the flames, Coral realized Matthew was still asleep amidst the chaos.
“I ran downstairs and then I realized that he had not woken up,” she says. “I ran back up and smacked him awake and said, ‘Let’s go!’ “
Matthew, a soldier stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, grabbed a few nearby belongings before he made his way out of the burning home — including the couple’s wedding rings.
“My first interaction with the fire was that I got smacked by my wife and heard ‘fire,’ so I jumped out of bed, got the wedding rings, my wallet and the car keys, and ran downstairs,” he says. “I didn’t have my shoes on, didn’t have my glasses, didn’t grab my uniform — nothing.”
While everyone escaped the fire unharmed, they all watched in horror as the family’s home went up in flames, causing more than a half-million dollars in damages, and turning their wedding gifts and other prized possessions to ashes.
In the event of a fire, the American Red Cross recommends yelling “fire” to alert others to the danger and to immediately head outside instead of grabbing possessions.
“We were across the street and everybody was just completely silent,” Coral remembers. “We were all in shock.”
Coral and Matthew — who have been together for over two years and originally married in a court ceremony a year ago— figured they could no longer go through with the wedding, so just after dawn, they started making phone calls to other guests to let them know the ceremony was off, that is, until Coral’s determined mother announced the wedding was still happening.
“Everyone was saying that the wedding was over, and I started contacting my friends, telling them there was no way we could do it,” Coral says. “But my mom was completely composed and said told everyone to get ready, the wedding is on.”
Once firefighters heard about the ceremony, they carefully went through the debris to recover anything they could to help the couple, including Matthew’s slightly smoke-damaged uniform. And because Coral’s wedding dress was in their truck and untouched by the fire, they still had some of the key components to go through with the ceremony.
Just hours after the fire — and spurred on my Coral’s mother — the wedding party gathered at Circle D Farm in Woodbine, and watched the happy couple exchange their vows.
“It felt like mini-vacation from a really horrible day,” Matthew says of the ceremony.
Investigators haven’t determined the cause of the fire yet, and Coral says her parents hope to rebuild their home, which may take more than a year.
A family friend recently started a GoFundMe page to help the family replace some of the things that were lost in the blaze, and it has since raised just over $1,000 of its $10,000 goal as of Monday.
While the family lost so much in the fire, the couple says the most important thing is that everyone made it out with their lives.
“It was exactly what we needed at the time,” Coral says. “At the ceremony, everybody was happy and smiling, and we all just reflected on what we went through and that we were alive. We all realized it was going to be okay in the end.”