By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Half of the white-paneled home on Marsh Overlook Drive in Woodbridge looks intact from the outside, as if a fire never tore through it early yesterday. The other half is blackened and gutted, forever changed -- mirroring the mood among Prince William County firefighters yesterday as they mourned the loss of one of their own for the first time in the department's 41-year history.
Kyle R. Wilson, 24, was among the first to arrive at the scene of the three-alarm fire, which started shortly after 6 a.m. A short time later, officials said, he died inside the house, fighting an unrelenting blaze that was fueled by the high winds yesterday.
"As a department, our grief knows no bounds right now," Fire and Rescue Chief Mary Beth Michos said at an afternoon news conference.
Black bands covered firefighters' badges, and red rimmed their eyes. Everyone spoke softly.
Michos asked that Wilson's family and girlfriend be thought of but left alone. They did not want to speak at this time, she said.
"This is a very sad day for Mr. Wilson's family, for the department, for our whole county and for all firefighters everywhere," Michos said. "Everybody is grieving right now."
The county's fire and rescue service is made up of volunteers and career staff in 19 fire stations.
Wilson was a rookie career firefighter who had been with the department since January 2006, so new that he had not yet passed probation, Michos said. He graduated from the same recruit school as the son of Assistant Chief Kevin McGee.
"He was an outstanding young man," McGee said yesterday. "I think he was the best of the best."
Officials said they have begun an investigation into what happened inside the house. What is known is that the call was received at 6:02, and the first unit, including Wilson, arrived at 6:09. One minute later, a second alarm was sounded, calling for additional firefighters, and a third alarm came at 6:34. Initially, officials did not know that the family in the home had escaped unharmed, McGee said. He added that firefighters lost physical contact with Wilson at one point, with a structural collapse forcing firefighters out of the building.
Another firefighter was injured when he attempted to rescue Wilson, officials said. The firefighter was not identified, but officials said he suffered minor burns.
McGee added that the wind contributed to the speed of the fire and the collapse of the structure.
When a front door was opened, he said, the wind fanned the flames.
There was no question about the wind's role, said neighbor Chris Faust, who watched from his upstairs window, awakened first by a car alarm and then by the commotion of fire engines arriving.
"Normally when you see a fire, the smoke goes upward," Faust said. "This time it was going horizontally. It was parallel to the ground."
He said the first sign that there was a casualty was when an ambulance backed up to the home. The first indication that it was a firefighter, he added, came when the other firefighters lined up in two parallel rows facing each another.
"They were standing shoulder to shoulder, and they created a path to the ambulance," Faust said. "Then I saw them all saluting."
"I got the chills when I saw that," he added.
Also watching for part of the morning were cousins LaMichael Taylor, 19, and Conrad Battles, 44.
The pair watched the fire spread until they had to go to work, and they came back later to "see if everything was fine."
It wasn't, they learned. A firefighter had died.
"All that rain we got over the weekend, we should have got some today," Battles said, shaking his head without taking his eyes off the home's charred remains. "All that rain."
"I knew it was hard to control," Taylor added. "Wind and fire don't mix."
Throughout the day, cars drove by the cul-de-sac at the top of the hill overlooking the home.
Among them was a Dale City volunteer firefighter who rolled his car to a stop and looked on for several minutes, taking it all in. He had just applied to be a career firefighter, he said, not wanting to give his name.
He was asked whether this had changed his mind.
"No," he answered without hesitation. "I just want to know what I'm getting into."