They embraced for a long time and promised to support and love each other.
For days, the Petrucellis balanced hope and fear. Then one morning Ami Susan noticed that the ICU doctors seemed more upbeat. Coleson had begun to stir, and the lung function of all three boys improved so much that doctors dialed the ventilator settings way down. By Tuesday, six days after the fire, doctors felt Aiden could go off the ventilator. His quick recovery was surprising because he was the smallest of the triplets and had had the highest carbon-monoxide levels.
Ami Susan and Michael, along with their minister and Dr. Finkelstein, stood at Aiden’s bedside as physicians removed the ventilator tube from his throat. To help him breathe without it, doctors had cut back on Aiden’s sedative medication. Awakening as they tried to remove the tube, Aiden thrashed so wildly that the people at his bedside couldn’t hold him. He tore the central line sewn into his femoral vein and blood gushed until a nurse applied a gauze compress. The good news was that Aiden now could breathe on his own. Bricen’s and Coleson’s extubations took place over the next couple of days and were less traumatic for everyone.
Days after their ventilator tubes had been removed, neither Bricen nor Coleson opened his eyes, and none of the boys said a word.
Aiden continued to improve fastest and was first off the critical list and to move out of the ICU to a regular room. Although Ami Susan and Michael had restricted the boys’ television time at home, doctors and nurses suggested that Aiden watch TV to hear people talking. Bricen and then Coleson were also moved from the ICU when they could breathe on their own.
One morning, Ami Susan’s mother went to Aiden’s room. He wasn’t there, so she walked to the nurses’ station and found him sitting in a little wagon playing with a puzzle. She called out to him and he looked up at her.
“Meemaw,” he said.
His grandmother cried.
Aiden had talked so little before the fire that his parents called him “the watcher.” But he began talking more and more as his brothers remained silent.
On December 16—13 days after the fire—the triplets had recovered enough to be discharged from Children’s. Soon after, the Petrucellis were asked by local media to take part in a “Christmas story,” but the couple didn’t feel emotionally ready to face the media; they also felt wounded by stories at the time of the fire that portrayed them as possibly negligent. Some coverage suggested that their home had no smoke detectors, that Michael had wasted time trying to put out the fire with a garden hose before calling 911, that Ami Susan was out of town on a “shopping trip.”
They found a house to rent in Chevy Chase, two miles from their Jamestown Road home, but little in it was familiar to the triplets. Virtually everything they knew had been lost in the fire. Their old neighborhood organization, the Westmoreland Citizens Association, donated toys and clothing for the children. The Montgomery County Parents of Multiples, in which the Petrucellis had been active, arranged for meals and volunteer support along with a third organization, Lotsa Helping Hands.
Ami Susan spent hours on the phone arranging outpatient evaluations, therapy, and rehabilitation sessions at Children’s and the Montgomery County Infants and Toddlers program. The boys had at least one appointment every day for months.
The triplets held one another’s hands and played together, but they seemed disconnected from their parents. They were hyperactive at times, especially at bedtime—likely a carryover effect from the drugs in their systems combined with the unfamiliar home.
One night, when Michael went into their bedroom to try to calm them, they kept coming up to him in the darkened room, touching him and walking away as if they didn’t know what to make of him. At times it seemed that he and Ami Susan were living in an alien-abduction movie in which people appeared the same but were very different.
When a friend remarked how good the boys looked, Ami Susan replied: “I know they look the same as they did, but I know they’re not the same.”
Dr. Finkelstein and others tried to reassure the couple that a long hospital stay—even without the trauma the triplets had endured—could disrupt young children’s development and leave them “stunned” for a while. They stressed the need for patience.
Bricen became his parents’ biggest worry because he seemed the most changed. He was quiet and withdrawn, so different from the chatty boy his parents had known. Coleson, the cuddler, seemed very detached and remote. A piece of good news was Aiden’s continued language development.
“I keep telling myself that they’re all alive,” Ami Susan told her mother, “and I don’t want to sound as if I’m asking for too much by wanting them to be the same as they were before the fire.”
On February 12, Montgomery County held their annual Everyday Heroes ceremony. It honored private citizens for playing lifesaving roles in emergencies as well as the firefighters involved in the triplets’ home fire. The Petrucelli family attended, and Aiden, Bricen, and Coleson—all sporting plastic firefighter helmets—were reunited for the first time with those who had come to their aid.
The event, held in Rockville, afforded Michael and Ami Susan a chance to express their gratitude publicly.