Cold air. Then heat. Then terror.

Two volunteer firefighters nearly die in Prince George’s when a vacant house becomes an inferno.

Published on October 12, 2013

He didn’t hide his scars. That part of the healing had finally begun.

Nearly half of Kevin O’Toole’s body had been burned the night a vacant house turned into a firetrap, injuring seven Prince George’s County firefighters. O’Toole had gotten the worst of an arsonist’s malevolence, and surgeons had operated on him 13 times since – at first to save his life; more recently to reconstruct his hands, which were so badly damaged that doctors feared that he’d never regain use of the right and that they’d have to amputate the left.

Above: The Feb. 24, 2012, house fire on 57th Avenue in Riverdale Heights. (Photo courtesy of Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Dept.)

Now he was sitting in the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department’s day room, the same spot he’d been when the box alarm sounded on the night everything went wrong. The 22-year-old from New York still couldn’t withstand exposure to open flames or serious heat. Even so, O’Toole had traveled four hours from Long Island just to pass time with the guys at the firehouse and help out however he could. A year and a half into his recovery, it was as close as he could get to re-becoming who he’d been.

O’Toole was wearing a Company 9 T-shirt and shorts, exposing the burns on his calves, his knees, his arms and his hands. On previous visits, he’d hidden much of the damage beneath long-sleeve shirts and pants.

“The scars will always be there,” O’Toole said. “They may fade, but they’re not going away. It’s part of who I am now. If you can’t talk about it, you can’t heal yourself.”

He squeezed a dollop of moisturizing lotion out of an Aveeno bottle and began massaging his left hand with his right to keep his scar tissue and skin grafts from tightening up.

He winced. He hurt, though not as much as he had. “I’m not in constant pain anymore,” he said. “I’ve come a long way.”

All he’d ever wanted was a fire service career. His father, a Nassau County police paramedic, had been a volunteer firefighter for decades. O’Toole was fascinated by fire, so he had moved to Maryland from Long Island at 17. It was an obvious place to start, given Prince George’s County’s reputation as a volunteer-friendly firefighting hotbed that drew aspiring first responders from all over the country. At Bladensburg, there were volunteers from Nebraska, Montana, New Jersey and North Carolina.

But O’Toole had become a firefighter who couldn’t fight fires, for now and perhaps forever.

‘They love going to fires’

Sgt. Kevin O'Toole enters the sleeping quarters at the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department. O’Toole moved to Prince George’s County as a teenager to fulfill his dream of a life in the fire service. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The call came after dark on Feb. 24, 2012, a Friday. A small house fire had been reported on 57th Avenue in Riverdale Heights, a few miles from the District.

A county dispatcher sent seven crews from four firehouses, including two from Company 9.

“It was a run-of-the-mill call, just real typical,” said Randy Kuenzli, Bladensburg’s fire chief.

Sgt. Kevin O’Toole was passing time in the day room, where the men and women of the Bladensburg firehouse ate and watched television and gave each other profanity-laced grief while waiting for something to happen. His friend Lt. Ethan Sorrell was sitting in an annex, listening to Kuenzli deliver his monthly chief’s report.

When the box alarm sounded at 9:11 p.m., O’Toole and Sorrell rushed to the ladder truck in the engine bay. Within minutes of responding to the seemingly routine call, the 21-year-olds would be near death.

Fire calls in Prince George’s come at a relentless rate – 25,094 in 2012 alone, ranging from small dumpster fires to multi-alarm apartment fires.

Bladensburg’s own volume is robust. Company 9′s engine went out 2,272 times in 2012; the ladder truck 866 times.

“Unfortunately, we do run a lot of fire here,” Kuenzli said.

To O’Toole and Sorrell, that seemed more like a promise than a threat. The heavy action was what attracted them to Prince George’s in the first place.

“It’s why you became a fireman,” said Sorrell, who had moved to Maryland from Buies Creek, a speck of a North Carolina town between Fort Bragg and Raleigh. “Yes, you serve and protect. But you ask any fireman, and they’ll tell you they love going to fires. And Prince George’s is renowned for fires.”

A wind-fueled fire

An internal investigation found that mistakes were made during a 2012 Riverdale house fire that injured seven Prince George's County firefighters. (WTTG Fox 5/myfoxnews.com)

O’Toole had discovered the county fire service online when he was in high school in Hicksville, N.Y. He visited Prince George’s for a ride-along when he was just 16 and was hooked: The county offered free training and free turnout gear and a free place to sleep, along with the experience he sought to eventually land a salaried firefighting job somewhere.

“It’s very busy, aggressive, with guys who are really into it, really hard-core – a place where a fireman would want to be,” O’Toole said.

The Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department is a massive apparatus, with 45 stations covering about 500 square miles populated by nearly 900,000 people. All but two of the 45 stations are owned by individual volunteer fire companies, which operate independently, purchase their own equipment and make their own personnel decisions but work in concert with the county department. When a 911 call comes in, Prince George’s County Fire/EMS takes command of the dispatched stations.

Countywide, there are 814 salaried fire and EMS personnel and 1,095 volunteers who are certified to ride firetrucks and ambulances.

Some of the volunteer departments are partially staffed by career (meaning, paid) firefighters and paramedics, though not Bladensburg, which has been an all-volunteer station since 2004. Nearly half of its 68 fire- and EMS-certified volunteers are from out of state, Kuenzli said.

“We are the largest, busiest combination volunteer and career department in the United States – and also the most complex,” said Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor, whose annual budget exceeds $125 million.

Averaging about 135,000 fire and emergency medical calls annually, the department is among the 15 busiest in the United States, according to Firehouse Magazine’s National Run Survey. In the most recent survey, Prince George’s ranked ahead of San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta and Boston but behind the District and Baltimore.

Despite the volume, burn injuries among county firefighters are fairly infrequent, the result of high training standards and state-of-the-art protective gear. There were just 34 reported in 2012 by Prince George’s firefighters and EMS personnel – six of them sustained on 57th Avenue in the county’s worst breach of firefighter safety in years.

‘My guy’s in there!’

The charred helmet Ethan Sorrell was wearing during the 57th Avenue fire. It still reeks from the flames. (Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)

At the time of the arson, Sorrell was studying fire science at University of Maryland University College, paying in-state tuition, with the firehouse as his home address. He lived rent-free in Company 9′s dormlike wing, whose hallways were decorated with souvenirs from fire scenes: melted computer parts and power tools, scorched stuffed animals, a charred street address plaque. O’Toole had been a live-in, too, but moved back home to Long Island to get an associate’s degree in fire protection technology from Suffolk County Community College. He was back in Bladensburg for Company 9′s banquet, which was scheduled for that Saturday. Since he was around, he had signed up for a Friday shift, hoping to see some action.

He was getting his wish.

Sorrell rode shotgun in Truck 809, in the space reserved for the officer-in-charge. He assigned O’Toole to sit behind him, in the rear-facing seat reserved for the ax-wielding, door-busting forceman. It was a critically important assignment, because the forceman teamed with the officer in search-and-rescue operations.

Truck 809 – a 20-year-old Seagrave carrying a 100-foot mechanical ladder – screamed up Kenilworth Avenue, past the fast-food joints and auto shops and taquerias. The six-seater turned twice before stopping in front of the burning house.

Less than three minutes had passed since the alarm was sounded.

Ethan Sorrell keeps mementos of the 57th Avenue fire at his home in Buies Creek, N.C., including his melted flashlight, top. A fire-damaged clock, middle, and bass guitar, bottom, from different blazes are displayed on a wall at the Bladensburg firehouse. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post and Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)

Flames were shooting out of windows in the walk-out basement, which was on the back side of the house. Unusually strong winds were pushing thick smoke into the street in front of the house, according to the firefighters and investigators.

The six-man team dismounted the truck, and Sorrell and O’Toole moved quickly to the front door, which had already been busted open by the first-arriving engine crew, from Company 7 in Riverdale.

The wood-frame home, built in 1967, had four bedrooms, two bathrooms and no residents. The building was condemned and had been vacant for four months.

The first neighbor to call 911 told the emergency operator that nobody lived there, but the information hadn’t been conveyed to the firefighters sizing up the scene. It may not have mattered anyway; there was a car parked in the burning home’s driveway, suggesting somebody may have been inside.

“Seeing the car put us into search-and-rescue mode,” O’Toole said. “You make a risk assessment and then go in to find out if somebody’s alive in there.”

Each firefighter has clearly defined duties in every fireground operation; at the center of what may look and sound like total chaos is a carefully choreographed dance. There are some variables – the type of fire, along with its behavior (fire is a most unpredictable pas des deux partner). But the roles and procedures more or less remain the same.

On 57th Avenue, Sorrell and O’Toole were responsible for finding and saving survivors.

The first-arriving engine was responsible for protecting O’Toole and Sorrell with a hand-held hose line. The fully charged, 1¾-inch hose was supposed to go through the door first.

As they prepared to enter the house, Sorrell looked at the Riverdale officer, he said. “He gave me the thumbs up.”

O’Toole said that he lifted his ax and that the Riverdale guys nodded. “They were good to go.”

Sorrell attempted to radio the command post to say he and O’Toole were going in. They entered sometime after 9:15, with O’Toole on the left, Sorrell on the right and the hose line – in violation of standard procedure – expected to be behind them.

The first floor of the house had been filling with pressurized smoke, which helped contain the fire to the basement. But when the front door was forced open, the rush of oxygen ventilated the fire and changed its flow path, pulling it up the interior stairs, into the living room and out the door. It was intensified by wind blowing through the house from the basement, which propelled the fire like a blowtorch.

Both men were wearing protective coats, pants, hoods, helmets, gloves, boots and self-contained breathing apparatuses. Through their clothes, they could still feel the atmosphere changing for the worse.

First came a rush of cold air. Then came blast-furnace heat. Then came terror.

The front door had slammed shut, and the superheated gas and smoke that had been streaming out the door enveloped the young firefighters.

“That’s when it went bad for us,” Sorrell said.

They couldn’t see and they couldn’t breathe. “Like there was a black hot towel on your face,” O’Toole said. “And it was eerily silent. All we could hear was ourselves. We knew we were alone, and we knew it was bad.”

They were the only firefighters on the first floor when the house turned into an inferno. Riverdale’s engine company and its hose line were missing.

O’Toole and Sorrell had trained for this sort of emergency situation before, learning basic survival skills in a smoke-filled building at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and at a safety and survival academy in New Jersey. But no simulation could truly prepare them for what they were facing.

Steps in a catastrophe

Here is what happened in that fire, according to investigators.

Firefighters arrive

When the first engine arrived at the house in Riverdale Heights at 9:12 p.m., smoke and flames billowed from two corner windows of the walk-out basement. All other windows and doors were closed. A strong northwest wind carried thick smoke into the front yard.

Smoke fills the house

The fire burning in the basement kitchen and bathroom was a “compartment fire,” meaning it was contained in an enclosed space. Heavy smoke filled the first floor of the house and most of the basement, leaving little room for oxygen and confining the fire to the basement corner where air was coming in through the windows.

A search team enters

A crew from Riverdale prepared a hose and forced open the front door. Two firefighters from Bladensburg’s Truck 809, Kevin O’Toole and Ethan Sorrell, walked in first and began to search the main floor. Accounts differ as to whether the crew with the hose entered the house, but the hose definitely did not discharge any water.

Fire follows the oxygen

The open front door allowed smoke to rush out. Suddenly the fire and superheated gas that had been confined to the basement had plenty of oxygen and a path to the first floor. Wind blowing from the basement windows propelled the smoke and gas through the house even faster.

Two are trapped inside

The front door slammed shut, trapping O’Toole and Sorrell with no hose line. Onrushing hot gas engulfed them, and temperatures likely exceeded 1,000 degrees. The pair crawled toward the door but couldn’t find it. About 30 seconds after the door slammed, each broke a small front window. (Neither could see the larger window between them.) Sorrell climbed out, falling onto and injuring another firefighter. O’Toole couldn’t fit through the opening.

A crew below gets out

Before rescuers could reopen the front door, three crew members from Bladensburg’s Engine 809 had entered through a door in the basement. They heard an air horn blast at 9:18 p.m. from the front of the house, a signal that they should evacuate.

O'Toole is rescued

O’Toole crawled toward the door and lay behind it. Burns covered about half of his body. Accounts of the rescue differ, but someone bumped O’Toole when opening the door and had to nudge him aside to open it wider. Sorrell and three firefighters from the Riverdale crew pulled him out. The three were burned on their ears or faces. Sorrell, whose respirator mask was not in place, suffered inhalation burns.

Fire is extinguished

Engine 809 crew members returned to the basement and put out the fire, which had by this time burned through to the first floor in some places. It was completely extinguished by 9:27 p.m. At some point, a seventh firefighter cut his hand and drove himself to the hospital.

There was near-zero visibility in the living room, but the men could clearly see trouble coming at them: The flame front was moving down from the eight-foot ceiling and was headed in their direction.

The trapped firefighters activated an emergency alarm, and O’Toole smashed his ax into the wall, thinking it might be the door. It wasn’t.

“Kevin and I were lying on the ground, dying,” Sorrell said. “I was on top of him, and we were both screaming and crying and hollering. We acknowledged we were dying. That’s something you can’t ever forget.”

Then, he said, “something came over me,” and the young officer pulled himself up, broke through a window and tumbled into the yard, where he landed on a Riverdale firefighter, separating the other man’s ribs.

O’Toole had tried to push through a small window, too, but couldn’t squeeze his burly body to safety. Now, he was on the verge of burning to death.

With temperatures climbing past 1,000 degrees, the shield on his helmet curled, and the liner inside his protective coat melted. His protective mask was so badly damaged that an analysis later concluded that it was on the verge of “immediate failure.”

“Everything was hot, everything was burning,” O’Toole said. “It got hotter and hotter and hotter until the point where you just didn’t want to breathe anymore.” Each breath he took “felt like someone was cutting your throat.”

Outside, Sorrell was crying for help, desperate to save his friend. “Come on! Get that line in there!” he shrieked, a bloodcurdling sound captured on a helmet-mounted video camera worn by a Riverdale firefighter. “My guy’s in there! Go!”

Several firefighters from Riverdale rushed into the house with Sorrell. O’Toole had crawled behind the door, and when they knocked it open, it cracked him in the head. The pain helped him realize that he was still alive, though Sorrell feared otherwise. “When I grabbed him, I didn’t hear him breathing. I didn’t hear him talking. I thought he was dead.”

O’Toole was pulled from the house, and moments later, evacuation was sounded. Not even seven minutes had passed since the initial alarm.

‘Seconds from death’

Sgt. Kevin O'Toole sits for a portrait in the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department engine bay. Nearly half his body was burned on 57th Avenue, and he has yet to return to riding. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The fire in the basement was extinguished 10 minutes after the evacuation order, but reports of downed firefighters kept coming in: Two, then three, then more.

Kuenzli, who’d ditched his board meeting and raced to the scene, saw the Riverdale guys first; four of them had suffered injuries that were not life-threatening, mostly first-degree burns.

Then he spotted Sorrell and O’Toole. His heart sank. “Both those boys were literally seconds from death,” Kuenzli said. “We were fortunate they came home. For the first six or eight hours, we didn’t believe either one of them would.”

The final tally would be seven, including a College Park firefighter who cut his hand and drove himself to the hospital after the fire was extinguished.

Shortly after the fire, Bashoor, the county fire chief, called for multiple reviews of the incident, including an exhaustive safety investigation. Thirteen men and women, from inside the department and out, were brought together to find out what actually happened at 57th Avenue, and how the county might avoid a sequel.

After 465 days, the task force released its findings, identifying a litany of factors that contributed to the severity and number of injuries that night and issuing 46 recommendations “so future incidents do not have similar or worse outcomes.”

Fire officials weren’t interested in assigning blame, so the incident report did not name names. But it’s not difficult to discern who’s who, starting with Sorrell (referred to as Truck 809 Officer in the report) and O’Toole (Truck 809 Forcible Entry). They made several mistakes, the report found, including wearing protective equipment that hadn’t been approved and entering the house ahead of Riverdale’s hand-held hose line.

That hose has been a flash point of contention between the two volunteer companies, rival factions of the county’s firefighting brotherhood just two miles apart.

Though Riverdale members claimed otherwise in interviews with fire officials, the safety investigation found “no verifiable evidence” that Company 7′s engine crew had ever made it into the house with the waterline.

It certainly wasn’t inside when the door slammed shut, “because it couldn’t have closed on a fully charged 1¾-inch line,” said Deputy Fire Chief Scott K. Hoglander, who led the investigation. “They could have thought they were inside because of the smoke. They could have gone in and then backed out. There’s adrenaline, a lot going on in a matter of seconds. What you think may have happened didn’t actually happen.”

‘He has it in his blood’

Ethan Sorrell, who suffered burns to his throat, upper airway, arms, chest, back, ears, neck and face, holds his Company 9 helmet in the engine bay at the Buies Creek Volunteer Fire Department, where his father and two brothers also serve. (Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)

The 57th Avenue injuries are catalogued on Page 204 of the county’s safety investigation report.

The entry for Kevin O’Toole is the longest, measuring 59 words – nearly one for each of the days he spent in the burn center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

O’Toole suffered second- and third-degree burns to both hands and wrists and first- and second-degree burns to most of his chest and back along with most of both legs and arms. There were 10 surgeries in Washington and then three more in Long Island, plus an endless series of rehabilitation appointments and occupational therapy sessions.

He has spent most of the past 19 months trying to get back to work, to return to the very thing that nearly killed him.

“I would love to be a career fireman for the rest of my life,” he said one afternoon in the Bladensburg engine bay, standing in the shadow of Truck 809. “[Stuff] happens, and it’s unfortunate. Soldiers get blown up. Cops get shot. Firefighters get burned. . . . I knew what I was doing. I knew the risks.”

But he wonders: Can he do it again? Could this happen to him again? The doubts sometimes swallow him.

He had come back to the firehouse from the hospital on Truck 809 after nearly two months of agony. He still had open wounds on his hands and back when he was released, so his body was heavily bandaged. Sorrell held an umbrella to shield O’Toole from the sun.

Ethan Sorrell keeps, from top, a note from fellow firefighters on his locker, a card from students at Bladensburg Elementary and a photo of his grandfather and a prayer behind a visor. (Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)

He hurts less now, but his sweat glands don’t work the way they used to, and neither do his hands. Doctors amputated part of his left thumb and removed the middle joint of his left pinky, and he’s had more skin grafts than he’d care to catalogue.

“They slice it off, then they cheese-grate it, and it’s painful as hell,” he said. He still had a rectangular red patch on his right thigh from the most recent one.

He had been off painkillers for two months, but his knees ached and his skin generally felt tight and itchy and sore. Would he really be up for firefighting again, if he received medical clearance?

“I have to go back to find out if I can do it,” he said. “I’ve just got to find out.”

The culture of the fire service is a potent, magnetic force. Firefighters who are burned in the line of duty typically come rushing back – or hope to, anyway.

“The majority of guys who get hurt, they’ll tell you that’s their goal from Day 1, to get back to work,” said Jason Woods, president of the DC Firefighters Burn Foundation. “It’s hard to explain. Most civilian burn survivors don’t even want to be next to a campfire. These guys will tell you they want to go back into a burning building.”

Near the end of August, O’Toole sent an e-mail to Kuenzli about his possible return. O’Toole said he wanted to get back on the truck to ride again. The Bladensburg chief was dubious.

“It’s a tough thing to talk about, but realistically, I don’t think he is ever going to fight fire again,” he said. “He can participate, driving and doing some of the outside stuff like that, training guys. But I don’t think he can go into a fire. It’s going to be too hard, mentally and physically.”

If O’Toole is cleared by doctors, he will go through a reentry program. He will also get new gear, to replace what was damaged in the fire.

“And then it’s going to be up to him,” Kuenzli said. “He could surprise me. I hope I’m wrong. But personally, I don’t think he’ll be able to do it. I don’t think he’ll be able to stand the heat. He can’t even have his skin exposed to the sun.”

Sorrell won’t hear it. It would be tragic, he said, if O’Toole can’t ride again. “You can’t keep a fireman out of a firetruck – it’s what he does and who he is. It would be like cutting the legs out from him.”

Not that Sorrell thinks it will be easy.

At his parents home in Buies Creek, he pulls out the helmet he wore on 57th Avenue. The bright red “9″ on front of the helmet had been blackened. The white Bladensburg patch had, too. “I nearly died in this thing,” he said, examining the charred crown.

Sorrell sniffed; it still reeked of fire. He flipped the helmet over.

“I’m not a big religious person,” he said. “But on every helmet, I’ve written this.”

It was the Bible verse Psalm 23:4. “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” he said, then stopped.

Outside the vacant house that night, Sorrell thought O’Toole had died, until he saw his friend moving. Then, he realized he had a problem himself: He couldn’t breathe. “It was like trying to breathe through a coffee strainer.”

There was water gushing down the street, and Sorrell tried – without success – to drink it off the pavement.

An investigation into what went wrong

An internal investigation found that mistakes were made during a 2012 Riverdale house fire that injured seven Prince George's County firefighters. (WTTG Fox 5/myfoxnews.com)

He had charged back inside the house without securing his breathing mask. He had inhaled superheated gas and smoke during O’Toole’s rescue and burned his throat and upper airway so badly that his face turned blue on the way to the burn center.

When Kuenzli saw him, Sorrell was heavily sedated, with a pediatric tube jammed down his throat, because nothing else would fit. He couldn’t speak, but he could write. His first message? “Sorry Chief.”

Sorrell’s parents arrived at the hospital about 3 a.m., and doctors told them that they weren’t sure their son would have a functional airway again.

In addition to his inhalation burns, Sorrell had suffered first-degree burns to his arms, his chest and back, and second-degree burns to his ears and neck. He was also burned around his nose, where his mask had come unsealed. When his mother stroked his singed hair at the hospital, it fell out.

“We didn’t even know if he was going to make it through the night,” said his father, Vann Sorrell, who has fought fires in Buies Creek for 35 years and whose three sons have all become firefighters.

But by Monday, three days after the fire, the tube was out. By Tuesday, Sorrell had been released, though he soon returned to the burn center to be by O’Toole’s side for the rest of his stay.

Both men’s medical bills have been covered by workers’ compensation. They received disability pay, too, even though they were injured on jobs for which they didn’t draw paychecks.

Sorrell eventually went back to his parents home in North Carolina, where a minor miracle occurred. Four months after he nearly died, he was hired by the Fuquay-Varina Fire Department in Wake County, N.C.

He works 10 days a month, 24 hours at a time, for $32,000 a year. On his off-days, he does part-time construction and landscaping work and tries to grab volunteer shifts at Buies Creek or back in Bladensburg.

“I knew he’d want to go back,” said his mother, Kathy, “because he has it in his blood.”

“It’s the heart of a fireman,” her son agreed. “You’re not going to change his heart.”

‘We’re not dead’

Sgt. Kevin O'Toole was released from the burn center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center after 10 surgeries and 56 days. Lt. Ethan Sorrell, who was critically injured with O’Toole inside the burning house in Riverdale Heights, shielded his friend from the sun. They were accompanied by Bladensburg’s fire chief, Randy Kuenzli, and O’Toole’s parents, Jane and Jeff, before riding back to the fire house. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

The vacant house that turned into a death trap is gone, razed by contractors nine months after it burned. All that remains is the concrete driveway.

Before the county ordered the demolition, Sorrell returned to the scorched house with his father and big brother. It did not go well: He threw up outside the house.

“Him and Kevin, both them boys been through a bad ordeal there,” Vann Sorrell said. “I just thank the Lord for what he’s done for them. He spared their lives.”

Before leaving 57th Avenue, Vann Sorrell picked up two rocks to bring back to North Carolina. He put them in the garden outside his house. “I named them Ethan and Kevin,” he said.

Five days after the house burned, officials declared that the fire was an act of an arson. So far, there have been no arrests. Up to a $16,000 reward – $10,000 of it offered by the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department – remains unclaimed.

Not that a conviction would complete the healing. The scarring was too severe. Both men remain haunted by what happened on 57th Avenue.

“I have nightmares,” Sorrell said. “You relive all of it – the screaming, the pain, the darkness, the pitch-black smoke. It’s gut-wrenching.”

Said O’Toole: “You try to stop thinking about it. Unfortunately, there’s not a thing I can think of in my life that’s not tied into what happened.”

At the firehouse in Bladensburg, O’Toole sat beneath a plaque inscribed with his and Sorrell’s names and the date and details of the 57th Avenue call. The flat-headed ax and Halligan bar he’d carried through the burning house were mounted above it.

“These irons serve as a constant reminder that anything can happen without notice,” it read. “Every incident is the call of your career until proven otherwise.”

On the wall facing O’Toole was another, larger plaque, “in memory of those members who have answered their last alarm.” The long list included the names of three Bladensburg firefighters who died in the line of duty years ago.

For all that went wrong on 57th Avenue, at least one thing went right: “We’re not dead,” O’Toole said. “We’re still alive.”

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