His hands are stiff and bear permanent scars, as does his neck, with gnarled skin marking the spot where a breathing tube helped nourish his badly burned lungs as he lay in a coma for 26 days. He still has trouble sleeping, and still sees doctors for his hands and lungs. He uses two inhalers and takes three other medications.

His most troublesome problems are the cough that racks his body during the day and the nighttime wheezing that at first awakens his wife, then gives way to a quietness that leaves her fearful that he has stopped breathing altogether.

But Lt. Elmer "Dino" Mahaffey, a Prince George's County firefighter, is alive, and for that, he is grateful. For months, Mahaffey had searched for a way to thank the men who pulled him from the Oxon Hill house fire he was battling.

Then, Oprah and Hollywood provided the perfect opportunity.

"The Oprah Winfrey Show" had been looking for a story about firefighters rescuing their own, to publicize the recently released film "Ladder 49," starring John Travolta. When Winfrey's staff learned about Mahaffey's ordeal, they created a show that would bring Mahaffey and two of the men he credits with saving his life -- Lt. Kenneth Ward and emergency response technician Philip Bird -- together with Travolta.

Only Mahaffey was told the details of the Travolta meeting, to allow it to be a surprise to Ward and Bird. Von McMullin, a third rescuer, could not be reached in time to be on the show, said fire department spokesman Mark E. Brady.

Ward, who lives in Owings, and Bird, who lives in the Laurel area of Howard County, were told that they would be participating in a training video being filmed at a Detroit fire station.

On Sept. 13, Ward and Bird flew to Detroit, where they were met by Travolta and other "Ladder 49" cast members, several of whom had trained with Baltimore firefighters to prepare for their roles. Travolta, a pilot who owns a jet, offered to fly Ward and Bird to Chicago, where Winfrey's show is taped.

The two men knew they were going to be feted. What they didn't know was that Mahaffey would be leading the tribute.

"I was like, 'How far is Chicago? Maybe I'll take a taxi,' " said Ward, who does not like to fly. "I started thinking about being up there with an actor [at the controls]," he said, adding that Travolta and the cast were "great and down-to-earth."

Ward and Bird did not see their injured friend until the "Oprah" show was underway (the program aired Sept. 20). Mahaffey appeared from backstage and presented the two firefighters with medals of valor, bringing many there to tears.

"It was pretty emotional," said Mahaffey, a 15-year veteran of the fire service. "John Travolta had trained with firefighters in Baltimore, and he said he had become familiar with the culture of how close firefighters are. I think that really helped him relate to what we were feeling up there."

A Tough Year

The trip to Chicago and the chance to thank the men who saved his life was a high point in an otherwise difficult year for Mahaffey.

Nearly nine months after he was injured, he is still recuperating from the injuries that left him near dead when, in February, he was pulled, unconscious and with singed lungs, from a second-story window in a burning house, where he had been searching for victims. He had collapsed after his breathing apparatus became dislodged.

"I feel blessed to be here," said Mahaffey, who lives in Mechanicsville and has not yet gone back to work. "They said I was a miracle. I guess I believe that now. At first I didn't know exactly what I went through. If somebody else had done it, I'd say, 'Yes, that's a miracle.' But I give credit in my case to the good Lord and the doctors. And I guess I had the will to fight. I wanted to get back to my kids and my wife."

Mahaffey spent 26 days in a medication-induced coma at Washington Hospital Center, where he was taken following his rescue. The investigation into the fire, which also injured three other firefighters, continues. A report is expected this year, fire officials said.

Meanwhile, sitting out the action has been tough. Mahaffey began dreaming of fighting fires when he was 4 years old. Even on his way to the hospital, he was asking about his crew, including his partner that day, firefighter Brian Frankel, who had been with him when flames on the first floor closed off their exit route. Fearful that they both would die, Mahaffey had urged Frankel to save himself.

The Fire Call

"There's not a day that it doesn't go through my head," Mahaffey said recently of the fire. "What did I do wrong, if I did anything wrong? Did anybody else do anything wrong? The report's not out yet, so we don't know what happened. My biggest worry is about it happening to somebody else's family, and ways we can get out there and prevent these things from happening. That's the direction I want to go now."

On Feb. 22, Mahaffey and his colleagues had just finished putting out a fire and were back at Station 21 in Oxon Hill to clean their tools and the truck. A call came in with a report of a house fire in the 5000 block of Roseld Court. Mahaffey happened to be talking on the telephone to Bird, his friend, who is stationed at another fire house. The two hung up.

"He said, 'We gotta go.' I said, 'See you out there,' " Bird recalled.

The next time they would meet, Mahaffey would be unconscious and Bird and other firefighters would be working to save his life.

Searching for Victims

When Mahaffey and his team arrived at the red brick rowhouse on Roseld Place, the fire was already raging. The family living in the house had escaped, but, in the confusion, Mahaffey and his crew did not know the family was safe.

Fire Company 42, from Oxon Hill, had set up hoses to keep the fire from spreading upstairs. Company 29, from Silver Hill, fought the basement blaze through a rear exterior door. Mahaffey, Frankel and others from Station 21 set about searching the first floor.

"When we found nobody, I find the steps to the second floor and tell Brian that we are going to the second floor," Mahaffey recalled.

Upstairs, Mahaffey broke a window to allow the smoke and gases to escape, he said. When they found no victims, they prepared to return to the first floor, but fire blocked their way.

Mahaffey made a Mayday call: "We are trapped on the second floor!"

He squeezed through the open window and yelled for a ladder. Then a huge explosion rocked the first floor, he said.

"The fire on the first floor did a flashover, where all the heated gases ignite," Mahaffey said. "That engulfed the whole first floor, so the windows on the first floor blew out from the pressure. The fire came up at us and forced me back into the second-floor window."

As he fell backward, his regulator, the tube that connects the oxygen supply to his face mask, became dislodged and broke, Mahaffey said.

"I immediately went down to the ground to try to get the fresher air," he said. "All the while I'm searching for my regulator, but I can't find it."

Mahaffey began to feel lightheaded.

"I knew I was about to pass out," he said. "I told Brian to go ahead and get out the best way you can. I felt badly for him because he has a family. I was thinking, 'Why create tragedy for two families when it could only be one family?' "

Then he lost consciousness.

The fire had been contained enough for Frankel to make it down the stairs. Once outside, he notified the others that Mahaffey was down.

Firefighter in Trouble

Bird's team, from Station 32 in the Camp Springs area, was working to control the blaze when he heard that a firefighter was in trouble.

"I climbed up the ladder and took the glass out [of a second-floor window] and went in," he said. "I couldn't see anything because of the smoke. I crawled around for awhile, calling out. Firefighter Von McMullin was already in the room attending to Mahaffey."

Bird crawled over a bed to the two firefighters, still not knowing who the injured man was.

"I grabbed him around his shoulder harness, and that's when I saw who it was," Bird recalled. "I said, 'Oh, my God. That's Dino!' "

As Bird remembers it, Mahaffey was lying there, looking as though he had stopped breathing and might already be dead.

"I took my mask off and put it on his face and pulled his hood up,'' Bird said.

At that point, Ward ran into the room with Capt. John Lyons of Company 27 in Morningside.

The four of them got Mahaffey onto the bed and started to formulate a plan. There were only two ways out -- through the nearby window via a ladder or down the stairs, where the fire still burned. The vibrating alarm sounded on the mask Bird had put on Mahaffey, signaling that his oxygen supply was getting low.

The men rushed to maneuver Mahaffey through the window.

"We took the [oxygen] bottle off when the mask ran out," Bird said. "I gave him two breaths [with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation]."

Bird said he removed Mahaffey's jacket and pants, more than 50 pounds of gear, to make him lighter to carry.

Ward, Bird and the others sent up silent prayers as they moved their friend and colleague down the ladder. A helicopter took Mahaffey to Washington Hospital Center.

"I can't even put into words how it feels seeing your friend lying there like that," Bird said. "It's hard enough for someone you don't know. But this guy's a father. He's a good friend, my teammate on the softball team. You're on the phone with him one minute and he's like that the next minute."

A Dramatic Recovery

For weeks, Mahaffey fought death while in a coma. Doctors sedated him because they thought it improved the chances that his body would heal. He had surgery to repair damage to his respiratory system. He had pneumonia. Four times, his condition grew so dire that he had to be revived.

His story was told dozens of times while he lay recovering. He was saluted at a tribute for heroes at a Washington Capitals hockey game. A hospital held a blood drive in his honor. A friend's daughter, 14-year-old Tara Fisher of St. Mary's County, wrote him a poem. Strangers stopped by the hospital to bring flowers and pray with his family.

Then, three weeks after the fire, Mahaffey's condition began to improve dramatically.

By mid-March, he was well enough for doctors to lower the amount of pain medication. When he awoke from the coma, he demanded food and information about his colleagues and his kids. His first meal was chicken, mashed potatoes and a Coke. And he continued to recover.

A week after he came out of the coma, Mahaffey was picked up at Washington Hospital Center by Quint 21, the fire engine he had been riding in when he responded to the Roseld Court fire, and driven back to Station 21, symbolically ending the call that began a month earlier.

"Quint 21. Back in quarters," Mahaffey told the dispatcher.

"Welcome back, Lt. Mahaffey," the dispatcher responded.

Still Healing

Mahaffey said that fire department officials want him to return to light work, but that he's not sure he is healthy enough yet. He still tires easily, mainly because his body has to work so hard to breathe. "I've only got 60 percent of my lung capacity back, and they're not sure I'm going to get any more," he said. "If I were in the station, I'd be breathing diesel fumes, and I don't know what that would do."

He fills his days going to medical appointments, running errands and spending time with his three children, Amanda, 10, Sadie, 6, and Jacob, 4, who hang near dad a lot more than they used to. The children, who were so frightened by the sight of Mahaffey during a hospital visit that he suggested that they be allowed to leave, seem to have recovered from the ordeal, Mahaffey said.

"My son doesn't like the scar from the trach," Mahaffey said of the incision made for the breathing tube. "Sometimes it itches, and I'll scratch it and he'll be watching."

Mahaffey has had a long time to think about the fire and how things could have gone differently. He believes more money should be allocated to the fire department for equipment to help reduce the chances of firefighter injuries.

Welcome Appreciation

On "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Travolta invited Mahaffey, Bird and Ward to travel to Los Angeles for the premiere of "Ladder 49," where the three were acknowledged at the screening. During the mini-vacation, the men saw the Hollywood sign and visited Universal Studios and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But mostly they basked in the recognition that comes too seldom.

"After 9/11, there was a lot of appreciation, initially, but after that, people started to forget again," said Ward, who is married and has a 19-year-old stepdaughter. "Every day when we leave, we never know if we are coming back. . . . There's a very real possibility that I might not come back. What happened to Dino just brought that home for all of us. It's nice to know that somebody appreciates it."

From left, Philip Bird, emergency response technician for the Prince George's fire department, actor John Travolta and Lt. Kenneth Ward board Travolta's plane for Chicago, where they appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show." On the program, their colleague, Lt. Elmer "Dino" Mahaffey, center photo, gave them medals for saving his life in a fire. Above right, Ward and Bird in Detroit. County firefighters welcome Mahaffey home from the hospital. He returned in the engine in which he left in February.Lt. Elmer "Dino" Mahaffey, from left, was rescued by Lt. Kenneth Ward and emergency response technician Philip Bird.