Second Firefighter Dies After D.C. Blaze
By Susan Levine
Another District engine company was draped in black bunting yesterday after a second firefighter died from massive burns suffered in a town house blaze early Sunday. Not since 1911 has the city lost two firefighters in a single incident.
Louis Matthews, of Mitchellville, died at 2:45 p.m. at Washington Hospital Center. The 29-year-old firefighter, a member of the force for seven years, had been listed in critical condition with third-degree burns over nearly his entire body.
Matthews and Anthony Phillips were together Sunday in the Fort Lincoln town house when an explosion of superheated gases and flames turned the living room into a toxic hell. They and two other firefighters were pulled out within minutes, but Phillips, 30, died less than an hour later.
"I don't know if it's sunk in yet," said Capt. Stephen Reid, describing the double loss as devastating for the entire department. "We're all part of the family. A lot of us spend more time here than we do at home."
Although investigators have declared the fire accidental, they still are trying to determine what started it in the basement. Electrical problems are a possibility, Reid said.
A third firefighter, Joseph Morgan Jr., 36, remains in critical condition with severe burns over more than half of his body. A fourth, Lt. Charles Redding, 41, was released from the hospital yesterday afternoon.
Only a mile or so from the charred, boarded-up scene, Sgt. Craig Duck of Engine Company 26 called Matthews "a top-notch fireman, very aggressive." Few other firefighters at the Rhode Island Avenue NE station were ready to talk. They were "pulling together," said one.
But at Engine Company 10 on Florida Avenue NE, where the grieving had begun before dawn the previous day, the men were more willing, even as they proceeded with sober, quiet purpose to get the hose wagon Phillips always rode ready for his funeral Friday.
Joe Myers polished the wheel covers until they reflected like mirrors. Kwame Roberts washed and waxed the truck's sides. As is typical of the brotherhood of this profession, a firefighter from Prince George's County arrived and volunteered for several hours. A retired D.C. lieutenant and a captain once assigned to Engine 10 also stopped by and helped remove hoses and other equipment, leaving the back clear to carry Phillips's casket, as is tradition.
By the door where Phillips would sit, decal letters were rubbed onto the side panel. They spelled his nickname: Sauce.
"I can't tell you how he got that name," laughed Roberts, who had amended it slightly. He called him "Buttah Sauce."
Roberts was probably closer to Phillips than anyone at Engine 10, although the two worked different hours. "He released my shift. He was my cup of coffee." And a joking, easygoing cup he was, too, three years on the job but fresh enough to still get a kick yelling "10 Engine, baby!" out the window of the hose wagon.
"He made 24 hours go by fast," Bill Suttle, an academy classmate, said.
Because it was the holiday weekend, many members of the company were out of town when the fire broke out. Jimmy Griest and Sean Greene were in Dewey Beach, Del., and deep asleep when a police officer knocked on the door and told them to phone the station. Griest called, talked briefly, said goodbye.
"Sauce got killed at work," he repeated to Greene. They packed up and were on the road in 20 minutes.
Roberts was in Atlanta visiting a cousin for Memorial Day when his mother reached him about 2 a.m. Sunday. She was upset and had the name garbled and couldn't tell him exactly who was dead. He called the firehouse, got Lt. John Slavik on the phone.
"Tony Phillips just died in a fire," Slavik told him, barely able to speak. Roberts began crying, too. He put his suitcase in the car and drove back to Washington. What he learned when he got here nearly 12 hours later was little consolation.
"It was just an ordinary, routine fire." Not like the one 19 months ago when the floor collapsed under a firefighter in the department's last fatality. "It just got ugly so fast," Roberts said, strain and fatigue on his face. Roberts has seven years in this line of work, but Phillips's death is the first he has experienced up close. "It could have been me. It could have been any one of these guys. . . . Right now it scares me."
But the men in Engine Company 10 have little time to be scared. Theirs is the busiest station in the country. The House of Pain, they call it. They're mostly young -- Myers, whose T-shirt reads, "Only the Strong Survive," is almost a senior at 35 -- and the demands of several dozen calls per shift keep them pumped.
Phillips was actually working overtime during the weekend, and when the box alarm sounded for the 3100 block of Cherry Road NE, he was on his 30th hour. He jumped into the lineman position facing south, ready to go. The hose wagon pulled out. Myers, recently promoted, was at the wheel.
"I don't want to talk about the fire," Myers said yesterday. And yet he did, a little.
"We ran the hose out, and I went back and charged the line," he recounted. Everything proceeded as it should have. Everyone was in position. As it turned out, the couple who live in the house were already safe. And Phillips, like the other three firefighters injured, had been trained for that very moment -- when roiling black smoke makes a space so dark you can't see your own hand in front of your face, when flaming heat is so intense it's literally burning through your gear.
But it happened. "You could just tell by the way people were starting to scramble," Myers said, jaw clamped hard. "You could tell by the chatter on the radio."
Four firefighters were missing.
"It's like a triple whammy," he said, suddenly talking fast. "We lose a guy in our department, in our company, and it happens on my shift. . . . We could probably second-guess ourselves to death."
Services for Phillips will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at New Bethesda Gospel Church on Kenilworth Avenue NE. Arrangements for Matthews are pending. Between them, there are now two little boys and a toddler girl without fathers.
Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.
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