When Capt. Edgar A. Farve of the D.C. Fire Department heard the order to evacuate a two-story house near Rock Creek Park that was engulfed in flames and heavy smoke, he thought his partner had not heard the command.
Blinded by the smoke, Farve groped along the sagging floor searching for a leg, a boot, a hand of William DiGiovanni. Farve did not know that his partner had already escaped.
Suddenly the floor gave way and Farve fell into the basement, surrounded by flames like a piece of coal tossed into a furnace.
His comrades outside heard his screams that pierced the crackling blaze and a sense of panic engulfed the fireground. Two months earlier another firefighter had plunged to his death while searching for victims in a downtown fire, and Farve's friends were determined not to let history repeat itself.
Firefighter Chris Sheffe threw on his air pack and squeezed through a small window to the basement, the center of the fire. He found himself surrounded by flames and smoke and caught in a maze of old furniture, some of which was on fire.
Later he was joined by two other firefighters. They found the injured Farve and shared their oxygen with him until others in the crew pulled him to safety.
Today, Sheffe will receive a gold medal and the two other firefighters silver medals for the rescue. They will be honored along with two other firefighters and four police officers, including Sgt. Joseph M. Cournoyer, who was killed while trying to arrest a robbery suspect at a Northeast Metrobus stop in January. Cournoyer will be awarded a gold medal posthumously.
The awards, established by an Act of Congress in 1929 to recognize extraordinary acts of heroism by D.C. firefighters and police officers, will be given at a noon ceremony sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.
The firefighters who rescued Farve say they are not heroes -- they were just doing their job. But the five-member awards committee saw their rescue as selfless and brave in the face of danger and possible death.
Cournoyer will be honored for exhibiting "courage and devotion to duty by ultimately paying the supreme sacrifice; he laid down his life in the performance of duty for the citizens of the District of Columbia."
Sheffe, 43, the fire department's gold medal recipient, recently recalled the scene at 6225 30th St. NW, last February.
"The only thing going through my mind was finding this guy alive," said Sheffe, an 18-year veteran of the department. "John Williams the firefighter who had been killed two months earlier and that incident -- that was going through my mind, too. I guess I was thinking the worst and that was one of the reasons I went in there."
As another firefighter trained a hose on Sheffe through the basement window, he got down on his hands and knees and searched for Farve, unable to hear anything, seeing only the flames and the smoke.
He found Farve in about five minutes. His friend was semiconscious but had miraculously fallen behind a piece of the floor that shielded him from the worst flames.
About the same time, two other firefighters lowered DiGiovanni by his legs through the hole in the floor.
"If you're looking for a hero, there's a man right there," DiGiovanni said of Farve. "He was only in there to get me out. He apparently thought that I'd gone through the floor."
Sgt. Thomas Bingham, 36, a firefighter for 14 years, clambered through the window to join Sheffe and DiGiovanni in the basement and the three men alternated taking their air masks off and giving Farve oxygen while tying a rope around him so he could be pulled to safety.
Both Bingham and DiGiovanni, 29, a seven-year veteran, are receiving silver medals for their "outstanding efforts and unselfish actions" in rescuing Farve, who has been on sick leave since the incident, suffering from respiratory ailments and a neck injury.
D.C. police Sgt. Cournoyer is being honored because when he boarded a crowded bus to arrest an armed robbery suspect he "chose not to draw his service revolver, giving first priority to the safety of the innocent men, women and children who sat motionless on the bus," according to his nomination for the award. It says that Cournoyer obviously thought that "if he should draw his service revolver and a struggle took place on the bus . . . the passenger's lives could be in danger."
After escorting the suspect off the bus, a brief struggle occurred, during which Cournoyer, a six-year member of the force, was fatally shot in the chest. Three men have been convicted in his slaying.
Cournoyer's widow, Darlene, declined to be interviewed about the award but wrote in response to written questions, "I am very proud that the city . . . has decided to give Joe the gold medal of valor, but I do not need a gold medal to prove to me that my husband was a good cop.
"I think it is a shame that the police only get recognized in this city when they are killed, seriously injured or found doing something wrong . . . . I think the police need this award as a means of proving to them that, at least on occasion, the people of this city appreciate the work that they do.
"These annual awards are a step in the right direction," she concluded.
Three other police officers are to receive silver medals. Detective Richard F. Ragsdale, 38, an 18-year veteran, will be honored for apprehending an armed robbery suspect in Prince George's County while off duty, and Officers Thomas C. Guidotti, 36, a 14-year veteran, and George W. Murphy, 25, a police officer for three years, will receive silver medals for rescuing a man from a burning car.
D.C. Fire Department Sgt. Joseph C. Neville, 32, a 12-year veteran, and firefighter Allen J. Winterwerp, 28, a six-year member,, are to receive silver medals for rescuing two children from a burning house in Northeast Washington in March.