Matthew Denakis and Coral Ben-Atar on their wedding day, hours after they lost most of their belongings in a North Potomac fire. Credit: Via Coral Ben-Atar

Friends of Coral Ben-Atar and Matthew Denakis are trying to raise funds for the couple after flames tore through her parents’ home in North Potomac on the eve of their wedding, destroying their presents and most of their belongings.

Fifteen people were staying overnight at the home when the fire broke out Sunday, hours before Ben-Atar and Denakis were planning to tie the knot at a Woodbine farm. Everyone escaped unharmed, but in less than a half-hour, the blaze caused an estimated $450,000 in damage to the home and its contents, authorities said. Ben-Atar said she’d put the total higher—around $600,000.

“Anything that wasn’t burned is just so damaged, at this point, that they’re not really able to get it out of the house,” Ben-Atar, 22, said by phone Thursday.


The burnt-out garage at the North Potomac home owned by Ben-Atar’s parents. Credit: Pete Piringer.

The couple did end up holding the ceremony Sunday afternoon as planned; among the few items that survived the fire were Ben-Atar’s wedding dress and Denakis’ Army uniform. But the fancy shoes Ben-Atar had painstakingly picked out were gone, and underneath her white gown, she was wearing sneakers. The couple also lost their wedding gifts, which had been piled in the home’s garage near where the blaze originated, and Ben-Atar said her parents are expecting their out-of-pocket costs to total about $70,000.


To help out, one of Ben-Atar’s friends this week launched an online fundraising effort, with a goal of gathering at least $10,000 to help the family recover from the fire.

“The Ben-Atars have always been wonderful members of the community, and they need our help!” Maria Tono, Ben-Atar’s best friend, wrote on the GoFundMe page.

As of Thursday afternoon, about $900 had been raised.


Ben-Atar and Denakis met each other a couple of years ago at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where she was volunteering and he was working as a nurse. The two didn’t interact much in person but struck up a correspondence after Ben-Atar flew overseas to serve in the Israeli army.

About a year ago, Ben-Atar flew back to the United States and married Denakis in a small courthouse ceremony in Oregon, his home state. But the couple, who’s now living in Fort Benning, Georgia, where Denakis is stationed, wanted to celebrate their nuptials with a larger group of family and friends and spent months planning this week’s ceremony in Maryland.

Ben-Atar and Denakis, 23, said they invited their out-of-town family members to stay at her parents’ home on Keeneland Circle so everyone could catch up in the days before the wedding.


“We thought, why don’t we just put mattresses everywhere, and it will just be a fun family occasion. And for the week leading up to it, it was,” Ben-Atar said.

The family members gathered outdoors for a barbecue at the home on Saturday, staying up late into the night making lanterns and burlap flowers to use as wedding decorations.

At about 2:30 a.m., Ben-Atar said her father woke up to the smell of smoke and began alerting the home’s occupants. Ben-Atar roused Denakis from a deep sleep.


“The first thing I remember is getting smacked and hearing, ‘Fire!’ I grabbed my wallet, truck keys and wedding ring,” Denakis recalls.

Dancing at the wedding of Coral Ben-Atar and Matthew Denakis. Credit: Coral Ben-Atar.

He ran outside barefoot, leaving his glasses and his uniform inside. 

While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, authorities say it might’ve started because of some discarded smoking materials in the area of the garage.


The couple says firefighters quickly arrived and put out the blaze, but the damage had been done.

Still, Ben-Atar said her mother was determined the wedding would go forward as planned, albeit with the bride and groom smelling a bit smoky.

“It was very embarrassing, because everyone smelled so bad. We just kept hugging wedding guests and apologizing, and they were like, ‘We get it. Your house just burned down,’ ” Ben-Atar said. “I felt like I didn’t look nice for the wedding day, and then halfway through, I was like, ‘Whatever, just roll with it.’ … It ended up being a lot of fun.”


The couple put their planned honeymoon in Myrtle Beach on hold and has spent the days since the fire with Ben-Atar’s parents in a hotel. Both of them say they’re grateful for the outpouring of support they’ve already received; Ben-Atar said a sock company called Pair of Thieves even got in touch to offer her free clothing.

“I don’t think I really realized how helpful people were in a time of need,” she said.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at