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

The couple wrapped their arms around him. Penny—who had walked the Petrucellis’ dogs after Ami Susan’s doctor ordered bed rest and who sometimes babysat the triplets—watched the black smoke pouring out of the house and saw flames through the living-room window. She didn’t see how the triplets, “the wonder boys,” could survive.

Fearful that Michael would go into the house again, Penny clung to him until Graham Lee—a young emergency-medical technician who lived in the neighborhood and had run to the scene—began attending to Michael’s hands.

When she returned to her house to check on her niece’s sleeping baby, the phone rang. She answered and heard Ami Susan’s panicked voice.

“Are they out yet?” Ami Susan asked. “Are the triplets out of the house?”

Jones knew they were still inside but didn’t want to tell Ami Susan that.

“You have to come home,” Jones said. “Please tell me you’re not driving, that you’re not alone.”

Ami Susan pressed her about the boys.

“No, they’re not out yet,” Jones finally said.

“Why aren’t they out?”

“I don’t know,” Jones said.

Ami Susan understood the danger her children were in. When she was a youngster in Indianapolis, her best friend and her best friend’s mother and brother had died of smoke inhalation from a house fire. Her family had rushed to the scene—Ami Susan’s father had ridden in the ambulance with the children to the hospital.

In Philadelphia, Ami Susan and her colleagues headed toward the car at the Four Seasons. The hotel volunteered an employee to lead them to the I-95 entrance. Someone phoned the highway patrol to explain the situation and request a police escort. The Pennsylvania highway patrol said it didn’t do that as a matter of policy and warned that if they were caught speeding, they’d get a ticket.

Susan Amaro drove 90 miles an hour while Ami Susan sat next to her, sometimes crying, sometimes taking deep breaths. They stopped once when Ami Susan thought she was going to throw up.

Ami Susan channeled some of her fear into calling friends and neighbors to find out what she could. In the back seat, Kristy Gavin also made calls. The bits of information they got weren’t encouraging. But Ami Susan trusted Michael’s judgment and knew he wouldn’t panic. “Solid as a rock,” she called him. She was relieved to hear from neighbors that Michael didn’t appear seriously hurt.

She also knew Michael to be an inveterate planner who spared no effort to protect their children. Days after the boys were born, he had a picket fence installed around the yard to keep them from wandering into the street, and he devised an emergency family-evacuation plan. He adjusted the hot-water settings in the house to keep the children from burning themselves. He checked and rechecked the baby gates and the carbon-monoxide and smoke detectors.

Captain Kimonti Oglesby, a 19-year veteran of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services, saw neighbors pointing to the Petrucelli house as his Engine Company 711 pumper from Glen Echo Fire Station turned left off of Massachusetts Avenue and rolled up Jamestown Road. Until then, the three firefighters had thought they were responding to a hot-tub fire. At the scene, they saw smoke coming from the house and Michael running toward them.

“My children are inside!” he said, pointing frantically to their second-floor bedroom window as Oglesby jumped off the truck. “Please get them!”

Oglesby threw the 30-pound air tank for his breathing apparatus over his shoulders and went toward the house.

“Three babies trapped,” he said into his radio. “I’m making entry without a hose line.”

A mantra among firefighters is “Risk little to save little; risk a lot to save a lot.” Every firefighter who heard Oglesby knew that firefighters are trained never to enter a burning building without a hose line to protect them except in extraordinary circumstances. If Oglesby, who had two daughters, felt he had to rush into the house without waiting the minute or so it would take to unravel and charge the hose with water, the situation had to be dire.

Driving south on I-270 after leaving the Montgomery County Public Safety Training Academy in Rockville, battalion chief Jim Resnick was approaching Montrose Road when he heard Oglesby’s voice crackling over the radio. Resnick had known Oglesby for 15 years, knew him to be cool under pressure, and had never heard such anguish in his voice.

“Battalion 702 to Montgomery dispatch,” Resnick barked into his radio. “I’m calling for a rapid intervention dispatch and a fire task force.” A moment later, he called for an Emergency Medical Services task force.

Resnick’s order sent more pumper trucks, a hook and ladder, and more EMS vehicles and manpower to the scene with sirens wailing and lights flashing. They came from fire companies in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Wheaton, Rockville, Cabin John, and Kensington as well as the District, the National Naval Medical Center, and the National Institutes of Health, all of which have mutual-aid agreements with Montgomery County.

Wearing 70 pounds of protective gear including a face mask, fire-resistant clothing, and an air tank good for 30 minutes—20 if you’re breathing fast—Oglesby walked through the front door into a wall of smoke so dense that he disappeared in an instant.

Firefighter David Horwat followed him and heard Ogelsby breathing but couldn’t see him. Unable to find the stairs, they came back out. Oglesby asked Michael Petrucelli to describe more precisely where the stairs were. Then he told Horwat to stay outside and break windows for ventilation while he went back in. 

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