D.C. firefighters injured in Northeast blaze recount experience for first time

April 21, 2011

D.C. firefighter Theodore Douglas remembers hearing the call crackle over the radio just after 12:30 a.m.: single-family home, heavy fire in the rear.

Within minutes, Douglas and his crew were at the wood-frame house in Northeast Washington. As thick smoke filled the air, some firefighters swung their axes to break windows. Others put up ladders.

Douglas was among those who went inside. They were ready to tackle the blaze. But a fire is unpredictable, even to those who are trained to tame them.

“We were preparing to hit the flames,” he said. “That’s when the back of the house collapsed, and all the heat and flames got pushed back on us.”

Douglas, whose ears were burned, was among five firefighters injured in the April 8 blaze. On Thursday, he recounted the experience during a news conference at Washington Hospital Center, the first time any of the injured firefighters have spoken publicly about the incident.

Douglas appeared with another injured fireman, Warren Deavers, and Marion Jordan, the doctor who leads the hospital’s Burn Center. The firefighters said they received excellent care from the doctors, nurses and support staff and were eager to get back to work.

Deavers, who was burned along the back of his arm, spent three days at the hospital. A bandage on his upper left arm that poked out from his short-sleeve shirt was the only outward sign of his injury.

The most seriously injured firefighter, Charles “Chucky” Ryan, suffered burns to roughly 30 percent of his body and has had three surgeries, Jordan said. Ryan, who is also the chief of the volunteer Riverdale Fire Department, remains hospitalized and is slated for more surgery but is “progressing well,” Jordan said.

Officials said firefighter Robert Alvarado had been released from the hospital and was recovering. Firefighter Ramon Hounshell, who required skin grafts, was doing well, too, and left the hospital Thursday.

The injured firemen have experienced an outpouring of support from fellow firefighters and others across the region, said Jason Woods, director of the D.C. Firefighters Burn Foundation. People have brought meals and donated blood. A group even went to one injured firefighter’s house to mow his lawn.

Officials said the cause of the fire, at an abandoned home in the 800 block of 48th Place Northeast in the Deanwood neighborhood, has not been determined.

Having several firefighters hurt in a single incident rattled the entire department. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, who visited the injured, said there is also a separate investigation into how the firefighters were injured.

“We’re going to be very deliberate, very cautious and take as much time as we need to get to the bottom of what occurred,” Ellerbe said.

Jordan said doctors can often tell by the nature of the injuries which firefighters were closest to the flames. He said the hospital would assist the fire department in its investigations.

The Burn Center, on the third and fourth floors of the main hospital, is the only speciality treatment burn unit for adults in the Washington region and sees nearly 700 patients a year, some from as far away as Virginia. Staff members and the firefighting community have forged a tight bond.

On Thursday, Douglas and Deavers said little about their trauma. But Ellerbe said the effects of that night linger.

“As minimal as they may have made it seem, this is not just your everyday occurrence, and it requires a tremendous amount of skill . . . to be able to survive something like this,” Ellerbe said. “Now it’s going to take some time to heal physically and mentally.”

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