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A Rescue in Bethesda
Comments () | Published August 1, 2009

“Thank you to all of the fire-and-rescue, police, and medical personnel whose professionalism and sound judgment averted disaster,” Michael said. “Thank you to all of the church, alumni, and other groups with which we are affiliated that came swiftly to our aid. Thank you to the dedicated and skillful doctors, nurses, and staff at Children’s National Medical Center for working so hard to save lives. Thank you to our friends, our families, and our neighbors. You—all of you—are our community. We thank you for your love and for your support.”

Then Ami Susan spoke: “Now, as we approach St. Valentine’s Day, we feel truly blessed to have had so many hearts open to ours. And certainly each of the fire-and-rescue teams truly risked their lives to save our children, and because of that, our boys’ hearts are still beating today—and they will always beat in sync with yours from now on. You are not simply ‘everyday heroes,’ you are heroes every day, especially at our home, wherever that home may be. Our hearts and our home remain open to you always.”

After the formal ceremony, the firefighters picked up the children whose lives they had saved and carried them around the room as the little boys beamed and showed off their little red fire helmets. Ami Susan and Michael presented each of the firefighters with a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a photo of the boys wearing firemen’s suits.

Five weeks later, on March 20, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce held its annual public-safety award ceremony at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. The awards recognize acts of heroism.

Some 1,200 people attended, including Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, Congressman Christopher Van Hollen, county executive Isiah Leggett, acting fire chief Richard Bowers, and members of the Montgomery County Council.

The Gold Medal of Valor, the highest award, is for those who go beyond the call of duty and take “extreme personal risk” to save others. Lieutenant Curtis Warfield Jr. and master firefighter John Klavon became only the 11th and 12th recipients of the medal in the 35-year history of the awards.

A Silver Medal of Valor went to Captain Kimonti Oglesby. Firefighter Jody Sealey of the National Naval Medical Center’s fire department received a Bronze Medal of Valor.

“The quick, selfless actions of these courageous firefighters were responsible for saving the lives of three innocent children,” the citation noted. “Without their ingenuity and teamwork, these triplets might well have perished.”

Over time, with continued therapy and attention, Coleson more and more resembled his old self. Always the most facially expressive of the triplets, he began talking more, wiggling his eyebrows, and hugging.

Bricen’s struggles continued. He seldom laughed or smiled and sometimes threw tantrums. The speech therapist began teaching him sign language as a bridge to speaking again. It helped get him talking, which in turn lifted his mood and eased his tantrums. By April, four months after the fire, he was talking and smiling more. By the end of April, he was Bricen again, chatting and watching out for his brothers.

The human body grows new lung tissue until the age of eight, so Dr. Chaney is optimistic that the boys won’t suffer permanent lung damage. The young, developing brain is also extremely adaptable. When necessary, it can rewire itself to circumvent obstacles, so there’s a strong likelihood that in time the boys will have few if any residual effects from the fire.

Dr. Finkelstein sees them regularly and says they’re “healthy and blossoming” in all phases of their development. He expects them to become “high-functioning adults.” Their parents have enrolled them in preschool this fall.

Michael is still haunted by the fire and all the what-ifs that keep running around in his mind. He has been helped by members of the clergy, and time has given him perspective, as have reassurances from firefighters who told him that his actions that day were right given what he knew—most people have no idea how fast and furiously fire can spread. They also convinced him that by calling 911 as quickly as he did, he saved the lives of his children.

On a warm Saturday in early May, Michael and Ami Susan put the boys in their van and drove to their home on Jamestown Road. Even though the medications the boys received at the hospital probably erased any memories of the fire, their parents felt some trepidation about how the children might react.

When the family pulled up to the house, its windows boarded up and the front door charred, the boys hopped out of the car and went up the slate steps into the front yard.

“This is our old house,” Ami Susan told them, “and when we move back in, it will be a safe and wonderful place for all of us to live.”

The boys recognized their home. They walked through the front yard to the side of the house where the fire had started. They grabbed brooms and shovels and began sweeping and shoveling broken pieces of slate from where the old porch had been. If they were upset at seeing their old home and evidence of the fire, they didn’t show it. The boys seemed eager to return to the place where they’d celebrated their birthdays, where their parents had thrown parties for friends, where Ami Susan had put up Christmas lights and decorations.

Workmen have begun gutting the house. The renovation will take months, Michael says—and it won’t include a hot tub. To replace some trees that burned in the front yard, Michael planted three Northern red oaks—he calls them the triplet trees.

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles