Md. Firefighters Recount a Harrowing Rescue

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

Flames pursued the two firefighters as they climbed the staircase. Searing heat penetrated their protective hoods, burning their faces as it overtook them in a desperate race to the top.

Somewhere on the second floor of the Bethesda home, 2-year-old triplets were trapped in their cribs. So Lt. Curtis Warfield Jr. and fellow firefighter John Klavon pressed ahead.

I'm already burned, Warfield thought to himself during the Wednesday afternoon rescue. We need to reach the bedroom before the fire does.

"I could hear the children moaning," he said yesterday. "I knew I was close."

Last night, the toddlers -- Aiden, Bryson and Coleson Petrucelli -- remained hospitalized in critical condition. The firefighters who rescued them recuperated from injuries as they and other fire officials described the inferno.

The fire began shortly after 1 p.m. in a house in the 4800 block of Jamestown Road. A nanny had just put the triplets down for a nap and was visiting with her husband outside. The toddlers' father, Michael Petrucelli, a former Homeland Security official, was in an office across the hall from the nursery.

The nanny spotted smoke rising from the back of the house, fire officials said. She ran up the stairs and -- in imperfect English -- alerted Petrucelli. He misunderstood her to mean that a neighbor's house was on fire.

According to fire officials, it wasn't until they reached the back of the house, where electrical components of a hot tub had caught fire, that Petrucelli understood.

Petrucelli told the nanny to get the children, fire officials said. He sprayed the fire with a garden hose and called 911.

"It's got my house," he told the dispatcher. "I've got three small children inside."

"Okay, get them out of the house and stay out of the house, all right?" the dispatcher responded.

But by then, the flames had spread from the hot tub to the porch and up the wood siding, fire officials said. The intensity of the fire had shattered the house's windows, giving entry to the flames.

The nanny hadn't been able to save the children. And Petrucelli couldn't, either. He tried several doors but was beaten back by the heat. In desperation, he broke a window, cutting his hand. Again, he was unable to get to the triplets.

When firefighters arrived, they found him outside, bleeding and covered in soot. He told them where to find the children: on the second floor, on the right.

The first one through the door was a Montgomery County firefighter, Capt. Kimonti Oglesby of the Glen Echo station. Feeling his way through thick smoke, he found the stairs. He broke a window to clear the air but was forced out by the rapidly approaching fire.

As he ran back to grab a hose, Warfield and Klavon, from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, raced past him and charged up the stairs. As fast as they moved, the fire was faster, overtaking them, Warfield said.

Through their fire-resistant equipment, they could feel the heat. Burn blisters sprouted on Warfield's ear and first-degree burns on his face.

Feeling by hand, he and Klavon found the cribs covered by nylon mesh that investigators believe kept the children from climbing out. Precious seconds ticked by as they struggled with the mesh, finally cutting them free with a utility knife. Hearing Oglesby and other firefighters approach, Warfield and Klavon grabbed a toddler each.

"Get the third one!" they yelled as they rushed down the stairs and out of the house.

In the space of a minute -- the time it took from the nursery to the front yard -- the little boys in their arms stopped breathing, Warfield said.

"We stripped our helmets off and started mouth-to-mouth," he said. "And as soon as ambulance crews put them on cots, Klavon and I looked at each other and said, 'Let's go get the third.' "

But in the middle of the yard, they collapsed from injuries and exhaustion. All they could do was stare at the door.

A few minutes later, they saw Oglesby emerge with the third boy in his arms.

All three children suffered severe smoke inhalation. Their mother, Ami Susan Petrucelli, who had been out of town on business, arrived at the hospital Wednesday night.

Klavon and Warfield were treated at Washington Hospital Center's burn unit and released.

There were no smoke detectors in the house, according to Pete Piringer, spokesman for county Fire and Emergency Services. State law requires smoke detectors in all homes, he said, "but half the time we go door-to-door there's no alarm or it doesn't work."

Yesterday, on Jamestown Road, resident Judith Hackett recalled wrapping a distraught Petrucelli in blankets while he stood watching firefighters battle the blaze. She said friends and neighbors were doing all they can to help the family recover. She had already received several calls offering temporary housing.

"Our heart goes out to them," she said. "We want to help them in any way we can."

Staff writer Miranda S. Spivack and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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