A District firefighter died and three others were seriously burned, one over 90 percent of his body, when the living room area of a Northeast town house exploded around them yesterday during an early-morning fire, authorities said.
Fire officials identified the firefighter who died as Anthony Phillips, 30, of Lanham Hills, a four-year member of Engine Company 10 in Northeast Washington. The most severely injured firefighter was identified as Lewis Matthews, 29, of Mitchellville, who was listed in critical condition last night at Washington Hospital Center, hospital and fire officials said.
Firefighter Joseph Morgan Jr., 36, of the District, also was in critical condition with burns covering 60 percent of his body, according to hospital officials. They said Lt. Charles Redding, 41, of Hyattsville, who supervised the first fire company on the scene, was hospitalized in serious condition with burns on his arms, legs, hands and back. A fifth firefighter, Stanley A. Taper, was treated for smoke inhalation and released.
Residents of the home escaped before firefighters arrived.
The four firefighters had entered the home's first-floor living room area when superheated gases in the room exploded into flames -- what firefighters call a "flashover" -- and fire rushed up the basement stairs. Colleagues, who had escaped the town house before it exploded, reentered to find Phillips unconscious and the others semi-alert.
Phillips, who was severely burned, was resuscitated at the scene but died at Washington Hospital Center's burn unit at 1:08 a.m. Preliminary autopsy results showed that he died of breathing toxic gases, officials said. Battalion Chief William Mould said Phillips's air mask may have been knocked off. His air tank, which still contained air, was not burned, Mould said.
Phillips's death was the second of an on-duty D.C. firefighter in the past 19 months. Sgt. John Michael Carter, 38, died Oct. 24, 1997, after he drowned in water from fire hoses in the basement of a burning grocery store in Northwest Washington.
An internal investigation into Carter's death cited a series of equipment and command breakdowns, including Carter having a faulty radio and the radio channels being so jammed that commanders could not immediately hear his calls for help.
But fire officials said none of the equipment in yesterday's fire malfunctioned. In fact, D.C. Fire Chief Donald Edwards said Phillips was the only firefighter with a new device attached to his air tank that would sound an alarm if he stood still for more than 30 seconds. He said Phillips's colleagues followed the piercing sounds of his alarm to find him in the burning home.
There were "absolutely no problems with the equipment," Edwards said. "It was an unfortunate accident that happened in a fire of this magnitude."
Phillips's wife, Lysa, 26, was called to Washington Hospital Center about 3 a.m., officials said. "She's holding up very well," said John Burger, Phillips's captain. In addition to his wife, Phillips leaves a son, Anthony Phillips Jr., 6, and a 21-month-old daughter, Azrell.
Matthews, a seven-year member of Engine Company 26, is divorced and the father of a 2-year-old, fire officials said. Morgan, an eight-year member of Engine Company 26, is divorced and has two children, authorities said.
Redding and Phillips grew up together in the same D.C. neighborhood, Edwards said. Redding's mother, who baby-sat for Phillips as a youngster, rushed to the scene after learning that her son was hurt and his boyhood friend killed, Edwards said.
Just Saturday, Lysa Phillips and the couple's two children were at the fire station, playing on engines and taking pictures of Anthony "Tony" Phillips Jr.
Edwards said the fire started about 12:15 a.m. in the basement of a two-story condominium in the 3100 block of Cherry Road NE. The residents, Ezra and Laverne Norton, were awakened by smoke detectors and ran from the house, pounding on neighbors' doors and screaming for them to call 911. Still, firefighters followed standard procedure and worked under the assumption that someone might be inside sleeping, fire officials said.
As firefighters rushed in, smoke filled the first-floor living and dining room and kitchen, but no flames were seen coming from the basement, officials said.
Suddenly, 1st Battalion Chief Damian Wilk, stationed outside, saw firefighters running from the home, sensed something was wrong and ordered everyone out, Mould said.
But before Phillips and the three others could escape, flames shot up the basement steps, through an open basement door and into the first-floor living room, where the firefighters had entered seconds before, authorities said.
Gases in the living room apparently had become superheated from the fire below and exploded into flames in the flashover, which can generate heat up to 2,000 degrees. Phillips and his three colleagues ducked as the room exploded around them, officials said, but Phillips may have been knocked unconscious from the force of the blast, Mould said.
Within seconds, Wilk had counted the number of firefighters who had emerged from the town house and realized that four were missing, said Battalion Chief Tom Tippett.
"We knew we had a bad situation," Tippett said.
Wilk sent eight firefighters back inside. They found Phillips unconscious. Morgan and Matthews were carried from the home semiconscious, while Redding remained alert, Mould said. The kitchen floor of the home had collapsed, but none of the firefighters fell through to the basement.
A preliminary investigation found the fire to be accidental, Mould said, though he declined to say what may have caused it.
Neighbors said they saw firefighters carrying their colleagues from the home and dousing their burning protective gear with fire hoses.
"They thought they had the fire all out, but then, all of a sudden, it just flared up again," said neighbor Jo Ann Hood. "It was just too much fire."
"When the fire got under control, it raised its ugly head again," said neighbor Bob King.
Burger and other friends remembered Phillips as an avid basketball player and an aggressive firefighter.
"He always wanted to be in the action," Burger said.
Phillips had "lots of energy, but [was] also very quiet," said Tippett, who supervised Engine Company 10 when Phillips joined four years ago.
For each of the last four years, Engine Company 10 has been rated the busiest in the nation, making it a sought-after company to work in, Tippett said.
"It takes a special breed to work here, and he did it," Tippett said. "It's a feather in your cap to get on here."
Word of Phillips's death spread quickly yesterday. Firefighters from across the country posted condolences and prayers for him on a firefighter Internet site. Meanwhile, about two dozen D.C. firefighters, some fighting back tears, visited Washington Hospital Center yesterday morning to donate blood and comfort family members.
Engine Company 10 was draped in black bunting. Burger said last night that firefighters there were too upset to talk with a reporter.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams left a church service to stop by the burned-out home. He stayed for about a half-hour, saying he wanted to show support for firefighters and the community.
Yesterday afternoon, a teddy bear and a small mound of flowers had been left on the front doorstep.
Staff writer Bill Broadway contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Anthony Phillips, 30, was carrying new equipment that enabled his colleagues to locate him in the fire.
CAPTION: Firefighter Brian Tannet wipes his face in front of the burned town house after he and other firefighters rearranged flowers that had been left there.