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Md. Firefighters Recount a Harrowing Rescue

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008; Page B01

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.

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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.

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