A University of Maryland custodian and three D.C. police officers helped rescue an elderly woman trapped on the second floor of her burning house in Northeast Washington early yesterday, fire officials said.
Police officials said special credit should go to the custodian, Mark Miles, 22, who circled the block several times on his motorcycle trying to find the fire, then joined police in searching the smoke-filled house at 2911 17th St. NE.
Della Norman, 69, was listed in fair condition at Providence Hospital last night, suffering from smoke inhalation and with second-degree burns on 10 percent of her body, following the fire in her house, which began just after 3 a.m. yesterday, hospital and police officials said.
She was almost unconscious when a fireman dragged her from her house, fire officials said. There were no other occupants of the house at the time.
"The young man deserves a lot of credit," detective Kevin Gerrity of the Youth Division said of Miles. "He was the one who saw it first."
Miles recalled yesterday that he had finished work at the College Park campus at 3 a.m. when he drove his motorcycle to his family's house on 15th Street NE and stopped there briefly. He had embarked on the ride to his apartment on Chillum Heights Drive in Hyattsville when he smelled smoke.
"I rode around the block three times before I found where the fire was," Miles said. "Then I saw the fire on the second floor."
Miles notified officers in the police department's Youth Division office, directly behind Norman's home, and they called the fire department.
Miles, Gerrity, detective Michael Meledick and Sgt. Anthony Bell yelled to awaken whoever was inside the two-story brick house, then kicked in the front door and mounted the stairs.
"We heard her crying for help, but there was too much smoke, and we started getting dizzy," Gerrity said. "We realized then why we didn't want to be firemen. It was pretty scary. It was all dark, and even when we did get a light on, all you could see was smoke."
The policemen retrieved a ladder from their office, and Gerrity climbed to a side bedroom. He made his way inside but could not get from the room to other parts of the house because the door was locked, so he returned to the ground.
Firefighters arrived soon afterwards, and firefighter Jackson Gerhart climbed a fire ladder and yelled into Norman's burning bedroom. Norman, almost unconscious on the floor, moaned that she could not move. Gerhart said that he leaned inside the window, but could not grab her securely.
"She was moaning, 'I can't help you,' then I grabbed her by the hair," Gerhart said. Gerhart and Bell carried Norman out of her bedroom and down the ladder.
"Her legs were on fire when I got to her," Gerhart said. "She's a very lucky woman to be alive."
Fire officials said the fire started when Norman dropped a lit cigarette in bed. Interviewed from her hospital bed, Norman said she didn't remember the fire because she had taken insulin shortly before, and then apparently passed out from the medicine. "I couldn't remember anything, but I'm grateful for what they did," she said.
The three policemen were treated for smoke inhalation at Washington Hospital Center, and released.
Miles said he doesn't feel like a hero, but did what he hopes anyone would have done. "It was really worth stopping," he said. "I'm glad I went around the block as many times as I did."