Oily Rags Sparked NE Blaze

Barbara Thompson, right, whose home was one of several burned in the 600 block of Fourth Street NE, receives a hug from neighbor Emogyn Jones. At left is Thompson's cousin Roxanne Williams-Richardson.
Barbara Thompson, right, whose home was one of several burned in the 600 block of Fourth Street NE, receives a hug from neighbor Emogyn Jones. At left is Thompson's cousin Roxanne Williams-Richardson. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The fire that engulfed a Capitol Hill rowhouse Monday ignited when rags soaked with linseed oil spontaneously caught fire, trapping and burning four firefighters who were forced to race through a wall of flames to get out, authorities said yesterday.

"They ran through the fire -- literally," D.C. Fire Marshal Gary Palmer said.

Sgt. Michael LaCore, 37, remained in critical condition last night after undergoing surgery at the burn unit of Washington Hospital Center, officials said. LaCore suffered second- and third-degree burns over more than half of his body and was placed in a coma Monday to aid his recovery.

"He's a true firefighter's firefighter, an outstanding company officer," Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said.

Firefighter Charlie Shyab, 30, was also badly injured in the blaze in the 600 block of Fourth Street NE. He suffered second- and third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body, but officials said he was upgraded to good condition yesterday.

Shyab and LaCore will face "weeks, if not months" in the hospital, fire department spokesman Alan Etter said.

The two less seriously injured firefighters were released from the hospital yesterday afternoon. They were identified as Douglas Donnelly, 27, and Kenneth Humphries, 23.

The fire, which was reported at 3:17 p.m. Monday, spread through several rowhouses on the block. No residents were injured.

Rubin said the oil-soaked rags, which are usually used to clean floors or other wood surfaces, had been stored on the back porch of the home for several days. He said they are known to combust as the chemicals in the oil break down.

Once the rags ignited, the flames apparently were fueled by propane tanks on a porch. As the flames grew, the house's two-story back porch collapsed. One propane tank exploded, and another leaked slowly.

"When it releases, it's just a fireball," Rubin said of the propane.

The truck from Engine Company 4 was one of the first to arrive on the scene, and the four firefighters positioned themselves on the second floor of the house next door to combat the fire, First Battalion Chief Richard Sterne said.


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