A little before 1:30 on December 3—a crisp, sunny Wednesday afternoon—the Petrucelli triplets, two years old, were taking an afternoon nap in their second-floor room while their father, Michael, worked in an adjacent bedroom that doubled as an office. Michael’s wife, Ami Susan, was in Philadelphia on business and planned to return that evening.
A former deputy director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services with the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Petrucelli had begun his own company, ClearPath Immigration, to provide software to simplify the immigration-application process. He was on a conference call with venture capitalists in San Francisco when the triplets’ babysitter, Rosa, who had been having lunch, yelled up to him that there was “a house outside on fire.”
He went downstairs and looked out the front door but saw no evidence of a fire. He assumed she was talking about a neighbor’s house.
“Whose house is on fire?” he asked Rosa.
“No, no—you house,” Rosa said, pointing to the back yard.
As they went back inside, Rosa said, “Oh, my God—me very scared.”
“Don’t worry about the back yard,” Michael told her. “I’ll handle that. You just go upstairs, get the boys, and take them out to the front yard.”
“Okay,” she said.
Michael looked out the kitchen window to the back yard and saw what appeared to be a heat shimmer but no smoke or fire. Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and no shoes, he stepped out the kitchen door into the back yard, where he saw two pillars of flame shooting up the outside wall of the brick house. The flames came from either side of a burning hot tub and reached up some 25 feet to the gutters. But the fire didn’t seem to have entered the house.
Michael, who still had the cell phone in his hand from his interrupted conference call, dialed 911.
“I’m at 4806 Jamestown Road in Bethesda,” he began. “The hot tub in the back of my house is on fire.”
As he answered questions from the emergency dispatcher, Michael picked up a garden hose and turned it on some wood siding near the hot tub, hoping to prevent it from catching fire.
Moments later, Rosa came into the back yard alone.
“Rosa, where are the boys?” Michael asked, assuming she had left them in the front yard.
“Me no have them.”
“What? Are they still upstairs?”
“Yes,” she said.
Michael dropped the cell phone and hose and ran back through the kitchen door into overpowering smoke and heat. The suddenness of the conflagration stunned him. He had walked through the kitchen no more than a minute earlier, and everything had appeared normal. The fire’s heat had burst windows, allowing flames to snake inside the house.
Unable to get through the kitchen, Michael ran around to the front, but when he opened the front door, a hot cloud of smoke engulfed him. He charged into the hallway and tried to make it up the stairs to the triplets’ bedroom but was overcome by smoke and toxic fumes. Struggling to avoid passing out, he made it back out the front door as window panes exploded.
Gasping and coughing up soot, he turned a hose in the front yard on himself to wet down his clothes for another attempt to rescue his sons, but there was no water pressure. He inhaled gulps of air to clear his lungs and again ran into the house, but he barely made it into the hallway before the heat and smoke overpowered him and forced him back out to the front yard.
From outside, Michael looked through a window and saw that the dining room hadn’t filled with smoke. Frantic, he punched at the dining-room windows with his fists to try to get inside—he thought that room might give him a better running start for the stairs.
As he smashed the windows, he heard a siren coming up Massachusetts Avenue. Three minutes had passed since he had dialed 911.
In July 2006, Michael had announced the birth of the triplets by placing three white wooden storks in the front yard, each bearing a blue bundle with the name and birth weight of one of the boys. Aiden, Bricen, and Coleson—the ABC boys—became known to family and friends as the “miracle babies” because of the nearly seven years of obstacles their parents had overcome.
The triplets’ birth had helped ease the pain from the couple’s loss of twin boys two years earlier. In February 2004, nearly six months pregnant, Ami Susan had gone to her obstetrician in Rockville for what she thought would be a routine checkup. As the doctor examined her, his expression darkened. He told her he could no longer detect a fetal heartbeat.
“Not even one?” she asked.
He shook his head.
The couple created a small garden of hope in their back yard, where they placed the twins’ ashes and two small cherub statues dedicated to Brendan and Brandon. Ami Susan questioned whether she could ever love any child as much as she’d loved her unborn babies.
While she and Michael investigated other avenues to having children, including adoption, Ami Susan felt driven to find out what had made her pregnancy so hard. In time, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that caused her body to develop cells that had attacked the twins in utero. She found a reproductive immunologist in California who specialized in the disorder. He prescribed immune-suppression medication that required an intravenous infusion of six to eight hours a month to prevent the killer cells from attacking a future pregnancy.