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

Oglesby couldn’t see his hand in front of his face as he crawled in the hallway as low as he could to lessen the heat and gain some visibility. The light from his headlamp proved useless as he groped for the stairs. Besides carbon monoxide from combustion, the smoke contained toxic hydrogen cyanide and arsenic released by burning plastics and other materials.

His ears and forehead burning, the heat penetrating the layers of protective clothing, Oglesby found the stairway by feel. The heat intensified as he went up the stairs—reaching 1,200 to 1,400 degrees, fire engineers later estimated. Carbon-monoxide levels rose to 2,000 parts per million, above a lethal level. Oglesby made it up the first dozen steps to a small landing where the stairway made a left turn before continuing up three more steps to the second floor.

On the landing, Oglesby knocked out window panes with his elbow for ventilation. He knew the triplets’ bedroom had to be close, but he thought the fire, heat, and smoke were too intense for them to survive. Then he saw the bottom of what he realized was their closed door a few feet away. It would have blocked out some of the smoke and heat.

The fire had erupted on the west side of the house, and the children’s room was on the east—a big break. Oglesby looked back down the stairs to see orange flames beginning to bend around the corner of the living room, ready to funnel up the stairwell. A rule of firefighting is never to let a fire get behind you, and Oglesby realized he was at risk without a hose line. He also knew he could never carry the children downstairs through such heat and flames.

Oglesby edged his way down and back toward the front door; on the way, he met Horwat, who was bringing in the hose line. The pumper held 750 gallons of water, enough for a few minutes. Engine Company 711 was still the only one at the scene. Horwat kept feeding in hose line as Oglesby disappeared again into the burning blackness.

When Lieutenant Curtis Warfield Jr., a fourth-generation firefighter, and master firefighter John Klavon heard the first dispatch, they rolled out of the fire station at Old Georgetown Road and Battery Lane in Rescue Unit 741. They thought they were headed to a hot-tub fire that would be out by the time they arrived. Battalion chief Frank Gaegler, a 48-year veteran, followed in his vehicle.

When they heard Oglesby on the radio, they realized it was much more than a hot-tub fire.

They sped up Massachusetts Avenue and arrived at the scene as Oglesby was about to reenter the house with the hose line. Warfield and Klavon jumped the picket fence and ran toward the front door as Michael pointed at the upstairs bedroom window and pleaded for them to save his children.

Built like a linebacker, Warfield walked into the hallway and dropped to his knees. He and Klavon groped for the stairway.

“I can’t find any stairs!” Klavon yelled.

“We’ve got to do something!” Warfield answered. “I’m burning!”

Klavon shouted, “I found the stairs!”

The two men grabbed at the railing and made their way up. Momentarily confused by the landing and the left turn, they found the last steps and located the triplets’ bedroom.

They pushed open the charred and blistered bedroom door. The smoke was so dense that neither firefighter could see the windows. The smoke had seeped under the door and through a heating vent. They closed the door behind them, got on their hands and knees, their heads as close to the floor as possible, and felt for the cribs.

Warfield worried that trying to carry the kids down the hot, smoke-filled stairway would put them at further risk. He got on his radio. “Get a ladder up to this window!” he yelled.

As they crawled on the floor, they heard two moans.

“I’ve got a crib here!” Klavon called out.

They tried to reach into the crib but were stopped by netting placed over the cribs to keep the children from getting out. They pulled at the netting. Warfield ripped off his protective gloves, retrieved his utility knife, sliced open the netting, and reached blindly in.

“Here’s one of them,” he said.

He lifted Aiden out—limp, covered in soot, and not breathing.

Not again, Warfield thought. Please, not again.

Warfield and Klavon both lived in Burtonsville and served as volunteer firefighters there. In June 2007, they’d been called to a house fire where they discovered a mother and her three young children overcome by smoke from a kitchen fire. They’d gotten everyone from the house—but too late.

In the triplets’ bedroom, they found Bricen’s crib near Aiden’s. Warfield slashed at the netting, and Klavon reached in, lifted the limp child out, and put him over his shoulder.

“Where’s the third one?” asked Warfield.

They searched for a few seconds but couldn’t find Coleson’s crib. Warfield had to make a decision: expose the two children to more smoke and carbon monoxide in hopes of finding the third or get the two out now to give them a better chance of surviving and return for the third. Warfield didn’t think he could wait.

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