Fort Stover fire leaving more questions than answers

Page News and Courier

LURAY — Standing on a dirt and gravel road with the charred remains of what was once a home behind him, Sheriff Chad Cubbage confirmed what many knew for nearly a week. He announced the names of those who died in last week’s Fort Stover Road fire at a Sunday evening press conference. The deaths of William Holloway, 33, and Sandra Holloway, 29, have been confirmed, but Cubbage noted that DNA testing was still being conducted to confirm the identities of the Holloway daughters, Ava, 5, and Elizabeth, 3.

On April 19, the Luray Volunteer Fire Department was called to 509 Fort Stover Road, about three miles north of town, at 3:52 a.m. Firefighters arrived to find the home fully ablaze.

A 9-year-old, Andrew, is the only survivor of the blaze. He rode his bike to a nearby realtive’s home to get help. The basement of the home was being rented to a male and female, but they were not present at the time of the fire. The sheriff’s office has not released their names.

Luray Fire Chief Mark Lancaster said that the home was a “total loss” with damages to the home and property estimated at $270,000.

The sheriff’s office is being assisted in the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Rockingham County and Shenandoah County sheriff’s offices, as well as the Rockingham County and Shenandoah Fire Marshall’s office.

The Washington Field Division of the ATF issued additional resources, including numerous field and tactical agents from the Martinsburg, Roanoke and District of Columbia field offices, Falls Church Arson and Explosives Taskforce and national ATF fire subject matter experts.

The ATF issued a press released Tuesday afternoon noting that they are in the process of completing their investigation.

“The ATF Washington Field Division is dedicated to reducing violent crime and supporting our state and local partners,” said ATF Special Agent Michael Boxler, in the release. “In this case, the dedication of ATF Special Agents, Certified Fire Investigators, and professionals from multiple states was essential to support the Page County Sheriff’s Office on a major fire.”

Kenneth Alger, Page County Commonwealth’s Attorney is quoted in the statement saying that his office will support the investigators, victims and “is dedicated to ensuring the safety and justice for the citizens of Page County,” Alger said. “I have been engaged with the community and this fire from the start.”

In the week since the fire, more questions than answers have arisen. Noting the sensitive nature of an ongoing investigation, the sheriff’s office is not yet answering those questions.

The Tour of Page County bike race wrapped up on Sunday, April 24. During the early part of the races, there were issues between Tour of Page County organizer Chris Gould and members of various law enforcement. It is believed that those officers were working on the investigation surrounding the fire.

“To the best of my knowledge, they had been using the [parking lot of the Performing Arts Center of Luray] as a base, and the sheriff’s office as another base,” Gould said. “The fastest way to get from point A to point B was through the race course.”

Parts of Main Street had been closed off for the race. Gould notes that with the nature of the bike races — going around sharp corners quickly — it was unsafe for the officers to drive through during the races. He added that it happened “five or six times.”

“It was very concerning,” Gould said. “The agents didn’t seem particularly concerned. I got a little bit of righteous indignation from them, that what they were doing was more important than what we were doing.”

Increased police presence around Sunday’s bike race coincided with an increased presence on Fort Stover Road over the weekend.

One neighbor of the Holloway’s (who asked not to be identified) was uncomfortable with what she witnessed.

“The helicopters went by Saturday — it was like being in a war zone,” the neighbor said. “Sunday was all those cops searching all the buildings, in all the woods. It was just awful, very disrupting and unnerving.”

Benny Cubbage lives down the road from the Holloway house. He said he saw the fire last Tuesday morning around 6:30 when he got up to check on his cows.

Police officers knocked on his door on Sunday.

“The police came and asked if they can go in my field behind my house and look around,” Cubbage said. “They looked through some buildings I have on my property for about five minutes.”

He was given no information by the police as to why the searches were happening.

“They never told us what they were searching for, and I didn’t ask,” Cubbage said. “I figured they told me all that they wanted to.”

Cubbage and other neighbors confirmed that officers searched the surrounding woods as well as a pond by the Holloway house.

“They were down here searching for who knows what,” Cubbage said.

Rumors have run rampant, but no official word has come from any law enforcement official.

“We heard there was a meth lab in the house,” said another neighbor. “We heard that they can’t find one of the little girls. We’ve heard a lot, we don’t know what’s true. It’s just an awful thing.”

What is known for a fact is that a GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover expenses for four funerals and for the surviving child. Started the day after the fire, the page set a $5,000 goal and has raised $11,811 at press time. Shared on social media more than 2,300 times, there have been 183 donations ranging from $10 to $1,000.

Donna Whitley-Smith, superintendent of Page County Schools, said she is not surprised to see the community come together at a time of tragedy.

“I’ve seen repeatedly what a great community this is,” Whitley-Smith said. “I’m really proud to be a part of a community like this.”

Whitley-Smith confirmed that the two children were part of the Page County School system, with Ava attending Springfield Elementary and Elizabeth attending Grove Hill Preschool Academy.

Springfield Elementary is accepting donations for library books in Ava’s memory, as well as funds for a commemorative bench.

Whitley-Smith said that the children were coping “as best as 4-year-olds and third graders can,” adding that there are counselors on staff at the schools.

Sheriff Cubbage notes in the ATF release the community’s shock by this tragedy.

“On behalf of the men and women of my department and Page County, this is a tragedy that will not soon be forgotten,” Cubbage said. “Our hearts go out to the family and friends affected by this fire and loss of life. The Page County Sheriff’s Office alongside with the ATF, Virginia State Police, FBI and our law enforcement partners are working tirelessly to bring closure on this matter for both the victims and our community.”

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