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.
Adding even more complexity, Ami Susan—who had grown up the youngest of four—learned she had a genetic blood-clotting disorder that might have prevented the twins from getting an adequate blood supply. So she went on blood-thinning medication. Her mother, Jeannie, worried that her daughter might be putting her life in jeopardy.
In late 2005, having resumed fertilization treatments, Ami Susan learned she was pregnant, this time with triplets.
From the outset, physicians believed that her multiple pregnancy posed too high a risk to her and the three babies. One doctor suggested that the couple consider selective reduction to give one or two of the babies a better chance of surviving.
They were torn. Ami Susan realized that, at age 39 and with an array of medical issues, she would probably have no more chances to bear children after this. She and Michael knew that if they didn’t terminate any of the triplets, they could lose them all. But they couldn’t bear the thought of eliminating one. They wrestled with the moral and medical implications and decided not to end the life of any of them.
Ami Susan took every precaution during the pregnancy, including enforced bed rest. At seven months, doctors decided it was time to deliver by cesarean section. When the boys were born at Shady Grove Hospital, they ranged in weight from a little more than three pounds (Aiden) to nearly six (Bricen).
A complication arose at delivery when Ami Susan developed eclampsia, a condition that caused her blood pressure to soar. She also suffered edema and major blood loss, and her hemoglobin—the blood cells that carry oxygen—dropped precipitously.
She required three blood transfusions. Fluid collected in her lungs; she was unable to walk on her own and temporarily lost her vision. For a while, her life hung in the balance as doctors battled her problems.
As her condition improved, she was released from the hospital, but at home she still had difficulty seeing. She also experienced another rise in her blood pressure, and doctors nearly readmitted her to the hospital.
Treated at home, her hemoglobin improved and her blood pressure stabilized; she gradually grew strong enough to walk. She required another blood transfusion and took iron supplements long after she had gone home. Her mother had come up from Florida for the birth of the triplets and remained to help Michael take care of Ami Susan while she recovered.
The triplets’ lungs weren’t fully developed, and they remained in the neonatal intensive-care unit at Shady Grove for about three weeks.
As they grew into energetic toddlers, the triplets became celebrities in their Bethesda neighborhood—“a bundle of scrumptiousness,” neighbor Ruth Hartmann called the boys. They played in the front yard of their home, running and yelling and littering the lawn with toys. They chatted with neighbors and developed distinct personalities.
Michael and Ami Susan nicknamed Aiden, the smallest of the three, Mighty Mouse. Wiry and strong, he became the “little engineer” with a knack for taking things apart and putting them together—as well as for testing how far he could push his parents. They called Bricen Houdini because there was no swaddle he couldn’t escape from. He was also the little caregiver, always making sure his brothers were all right. Coleson, the tallest, loved to snuggle—they called him Coley Bear—but he also became a take-charge boy. “I could always picture Coleson with a girl on each arm being a NASCAR driver,” Hartmann says.
Ami Susan had left for Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, December 1, to attend a conference at the Four Seasons Hotel. In addition to her own consulting business, PartnersPlus, she had become a consultant for the Carlisle Collection, a women’s-clothing company. This allowed her to set her hours and spend the time she needed with her children. The boys had mild developmental delays because of their premature birth; besides giving them baths and reading and singing to them, Ami Susan drove them to therapy appointments. She loved being a mother.
She had planned to leave for home that Wednesday around 4 pm and had already packed. She hadn’t yet talked with Michael that day, so she kept her cell phone on. When it rang, she left the conference room and stepped into a hallway.
She heard Rosa’s panic-stricken voice, first in English, then in Spanish. Ami Susan at first thought Rosa was trying to tell her about something that had happened to her own family.
“Rosa, please speak more slowly,” Ami Susan said.
Rosa managed to convey that there was a fire at the house and ran to put her cell phone to Michael’s ear as he punched at the dining-room windows.
“What’s happening?” Ami Susan asked.
“Ami Susan, come home! Our house is on fire! Come home now!”
She’d never heard her husband sound that way.
“Are the kids all right?”
“No. They’re inside. I tried to get them out, but I couldn’t get to them.”
She heard Michael call out to the arriving firefighters, and the phone went dead. The people in the conference room heard her scream in the hallway.
“Help!” she said as she burst into the room. “My husband just told me our house is on fire and they can’t get to our kids!”
People rushed to help her. Driving would be the fastest way to get back to Washington. Two other consultants who had accompanied Ami Susan to Philadelphia, Susan Amaro and Kristy Gavin, also were packed and ready to go. Before leaving the hotel, Ami Susan tried to reach Michael but got no response. Then she phoned a neighbor, Penny Jones.
Penny and Jim Jones, who live across the street, had gone outside when the first fire truck arrived. Michael, covered with soot, his hands bleeding, approached them. All he said was “My boys are in there!”
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.
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.
“Let’s go,” he said, and he and Klavon turned toward the door.
When suppressing fire inside a building, firefighters are in a race to prevent flashover, one of the most feared phenomena in their work. Flashover is the near-simultaneous ignition of all combustible material in an enclosed space. It happens when a thickening layer of hot smoke and gases released by the fire rises, spreads across the ceiling, and superheats a room. The released energy feeds on itself until it reaches an ignition point and erupts into a mass of flame that engulfs everything in the room.
The living-room ceiling, now layered with smoke and fueled by oxygen coming through the exploded windows, was approaching flashover. A warning sign came when tongues of fire flashed in the smoke, something firefighters call “angel fingers.”
If flashover occurred, Oglesby knew it would propel flames, heat, and smoke up the stairwell where the two firefighters were trying to save the children.
While Warfield and Klavon made their way upstairs, Oglesby pulled the hose line toward the living room, where the fire pushed out waves of scorching heat. He turned the nozzle, and air gushed out followed by a powerful cone of water. The hose pumped 250 gallons a minute into the blaze. The fire darkened as flames died and steam hissed. Smoke banked down like ground fog.
Everything in the living room was blistered and blackened. Metal picture frames were melted. But Oglesby had prevented a flashover.
When he stepped out of the bedroom holding Aiden, Warfield expected to see smoke choking the stairwell as it had been two minutes earlier. But Oglesby’s actions had cleared the smoke enough for him and Klavon to see the stairs. They edged down, holding the children over their shoulders, and met Jody Sealey and two other firefighters from Engine Company 750 of the National Naval Medical Center starting up the stairs with their own hose line. Outside, Trenton Massenberg, one of the Navy Med firefighters, and Robert Wilkes, driver of the Glen Echo pumper truck, had connected the fire hydrant to the pumpers to provide a continuous water supply.
“There’s one more kid up there!” Warfield shouted through his mask.
As they came out of the house, Warfield and Klavon flipped off their face masks and gave each boy two rescue breaths. They sensed no response; neither boy appeared to be breathing.
Paramedic Jason Buc was waiting in the front yard to administer emergency care. He met Warfield ten feet from the door. “Curtis, let me get him on my cot,” Buc said.
Warfield handed Aiden to him, and Buc could see Warfield had been injured.
“You okay, Curtis?” he asked.
“Go!” Warfield said as Buc turned with Aiden in his arms. Buc knew he had to get oxygen into the boy fast. He ran across the front yard and laid Aiden on a cot he’d set up just outside the fence.
Three fire trucks were now at the scene. Battalion chiefs Resnick and Gaegler were directing operations when Resnick saw Warfield and Klavon come out of the house carrying the two boys. Resnick could see that the boys were unconscious and knew that only one ambulance and one paramedic had arrived.
Even as a battalion chief, Resnick had maintained his paramedic certification. Every career firefighter in Montgomery County is trained in both fire suppression and emergency medicine, but paramedics undergo a year or more of additional medical training and testing that qualifies them to perform emergency measures such as administering EKGs and IVs and intubating patients.
“I’m going to patient care!” Resnick called out to Gaegler. Resnick ran across the front yard, took Bricen from Klavon, and caught up with Buc.
“Let’s put both kids on the same stretcher,” Resnick said.
They laid the two boys end to end on the stretcher and rolled it toward the ambulance. Both boys appeared to be in respiratory arrest. Resnick didn’t know if they were dead, but they looked it. He and Buc suctioned soot from the boys’ mouths as fast as they could, put oxygen masks over their faces, and began squeezing the oxygen bag every three seconds to force oxygen into their lungs to drive out carbon monoxide. The boys’ teeth were clenched tightly, probably from hydrogen-cyanide poisoning.
Warfield and Klavon turned to go back inside for Coleson, but after a few steps their legs buckled, their strength lost to the heat. They stripped off their protective gear down to their T-shirts, soaked with perspiration, and lay on the ground barely able to move, the heat still burning their skin.
From the time they’d entered the house, it had taken the two firefighters 2½ minutes to locate and rescue Aiden and Bricen.
Since moving into their Bethesda home in 2001, Michael and Ami Susan had grown to love the neighborhood. They welcomed new neighbors with homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Their friends knew Michael to be a bright, outgoing man.
Now he was across the street from his house; firefighters had asked him to go there to shield him from seeing his children as they were brought out of the house.
He sat on a stone wall in front of a neighbor’s home in bare feet and shorts, his face and clothing blackened, his bloody hands wrapped in gauze, looking lost and uncomprehending. He coughed and shivered, fearing that the children he and his wife had wanted so long, had loved so much, might be gone.
Neighbors gathered around him. Some wept. Judith Hackett brought a blanket from her house and wrapped it around his shoulders. Ruth Hartmann, who had driven Ami Susan home from the doctor’s office the day she learned she’d lost her twins, put her arm around him.
Kathleen Sheffield, who lived across the street and had two young children, sat down next to Michael and tried to block his view of the firefighters emerging with the boys, but he saw one of them, limp and lifeless.
Sheffield saw the same thing. Oh, my God, she thought, the children are gone.
“What’s going on?” Michael asked.
“Two are out of the house,” she said.
“Are they alive?”
“The paramedics are working on them.”
She asked if he wanted to pray. He said he did, and they held hands.
“Dear God,” she pleaded, “please be here with us today.”
Paramedics Mary Davis and Damon Lewis arrived from the fire station at Battery Lane and Old Georgetown Road and maneuvered their medic-unit ambulance as close as they could to Buc’s. Davis—who had begun with the fire service 20 years earlier while a student at the University of Maryland—ran up to Resnick and Buc.
“Do you want to treat both kids in this unit or move one of them to mine?” she asked.
“Let’s move one to your ambulance,” Resnick said.
She took Bricen from Resnick and carried him to her ambulance, laid him down, and continued squeezing oxygen into his lungs. With each child in his own ambulance, there was room for more hands to give aid.
Davis kept squeezing while Lewis put a stethoscope on Bricen’s chest. He could detect a heartbeat but no breathing. Every few seconds, he heard what he thought to be “agonal respirations.” A normal child would have 20 or so strong respirations a minute. He knew Bricen was barely hanging onto life.
“If we don’t do everything right,” Lewis thought, “we’ll lose him.”
He measured Bricen with a Broselow tape. Based on a child’s length, the tape calculates the appropriate size of tubing and drug dosages. Bricen measured “yellow 14.”
Buc wanted to get moving. Battalion chiefs Resnick and Gaegler had enlisted firefighters to drive the ambulances to Children’s National Medical Center to free the paramedics to work on the children.
Buc yelled, “We need to get to a hospital—now!”
The back doors slammed shut, and Aiden’s ambulance pulled away with sirens wailing while Buc and emergency medical technician Brian Consolo worked inside to save the little boy’s life.
“Keep it smooth,” Buc told the driver. “We’re working back here.”
A minute later, the second ambulance left with Davis and Lewis working to save Bricen. Children’s Hospital had been alerted to expect the triplets. Buc called to update the emergency department as the ambulance sped toward the hospital.
“We are bringing in a toddler exposed to smoke for an undetermined time,” he reported. “He is unconscious with a respiration rate of five—weak pulse. We’re bagging him and bringing him to your location.” He estimated the time of arrival at about ten minutes.
Paramedics in both ambulances worried that the boys had suffered airway burns from breathing hot smoke. If their airways began to swell, their air supply could be shut off. They didn’t want to intubate and ventilate the boys if they could avoid it—the procedure is best performed at a hospital. They kept putting a stethoscope on the boys’ tracheas to listen for telltale whistling sounds. They were relieved when they heard none.
In the first five minutes, there were too few firefighters and too little equipment at the scene. Then more fire engines arrived. Firefighters carried more hose lines into the house, set up ventilating fans, and raised a ladder to the triplets’ bedroom window. This freed Oglesby to run upstairs with Sealey to find Coleson. They burst into the bedroom, still hot and dense with smoke, and detected a faint brightness from a front window. Sealey knocked out the glass with his Halligan bar to ventilate the room. Smoke began drifting outside.
They knelt on the floor and groped for the third crib. They found it at the far wall of the bedroom, a few feet away from the other cribs. It was almost directly beneath the smoke-spewing wall vent.
Oglesby struggled to slash open the netting with a screwdriver. Then smoke cleared enough for Sealey to see a zipper. He pulled off his gloves, unzipped the netting, reached in, and felt the limp body of Coleson, who had been exposed to smoke and carbon monoxide three to five minutes longer than his brothers. Sealey lifted him out.
Horwat had climbed the ladder and watched Sealey and Oglesby rescue Coleson. “Do you want me to take him out the window?” he yelled.
“No, we’ll take him down the stairs,” Oglesby said. He cleared the way as Sealey followed, holding Coleson’s head up so it would be easier for the youngster to breathe—if he was still breathing.
Sealey emerged from the house and handed Coleson to Resnick, who carried the boy to a Bethesda–Chevy Chase Rescue Squad ambulance. With the other two ambulances gone, Resnick was the only paramedic at the scene. He bagged Coleson for three or four minutes until Curtis Walker and Terryl Haynes, paramedics from Wheaton, arrived. Resnick called to them: “Take over!”
Walker and Haynes got into the back of the ambulance and continued bagging the little boy. Haynes put a stethoscope on Coleson’s chest and could hear faint respirations. They hooked him up to an EKG, which registered a heartbeat. They prepared an IV line so they could get medications into him fast if he went into cardiac arrest.
On the way to Children’s, Walker kept talking to Coleson: “You’ll be okay, little guy. We’re taking you to the hospital. Keep fighting.”
Buc, Davis, and Lewis were offering similar encouragement to Aiden and Bricen. Halfway to the hospital, both boys stirred and began crying. Bricen thrashed so much that he pulled the IV line out of his left leg.
As they neared the hospital, both boys began breathing spontaneously and their pulses strengthened.
Coleson didn’t regain consciousness during his trip. When his ambulance pulled up to Children’s, he began trembling with a seizure.
Michael Petrucelli and firefighters Warfield and Klavon were taken in the same ambulance to the Washington Hospital Center burn unit. On the way, Michael overheard the two men refuse morphine—they wanted to have their wits about them. Klavon had suffered first-degree burns to his head and neck and second-degree burns to his ears. Warfield had first-degree burns on his face, neck, and shoulder and second-degree burns on his ears.
Michael listened as they talked on the phone. He thought of their families and all that the men had risked to try to rescue his.
Michael also had suffered first- and second-degree burns as well as severe smoke inhalation and cuts to his hands. As the ambulance wended its way through the city, he couldn’t stop torturing himself with what-ifs. What if he had run up the stairs to get the children out of the house when he first heard Rosa say there was a fire? What if he’d run to get them the moment he saw the heat shimmer from the kitchen window?
He thought of everything that was lost in the house. But all that mattered was his sons.
Michael heard someone in the front of the ambulance say, “Turn off the radio.” The driver turned it off, and Michael assumed that meant his children had died. As the ambulance neared the hospital, he couldn’t push from his mind the image of three small coffins.
“Trauma stat attending!” said the voice on the speaker system at Children’s Hospital after it was alerted by EMS about the impending arrival of the triplets. The word “attending” meant a senior surgeon was needed.
When Aiden’s ambulance arrived, paramedics and members of the trauma team rolled his cot to a trauma bay a few steps from the entrance, where an 18-member team of physicians, nurses, and medical technicians took over. Two other trauma teams were waiting for Bricen and Coleson.
Inhalation injuries get worse before they get better. The trauma team needed to gain control of Aiden’s airway before his trachea swelled and shut off air to his lungs, and they needed to do it fast.
They gave him an injection of rocuronium, a powerful muscle relaxant that effectively paralyzed him. Doctors then threaded the intubation tube through his mouth and down his narrow trachea. They turned on the ventilator to pump 100-percent oxygen into his lungs. While this was going on, nurses and technicians drew blood and checked his vital signs.
Doctors knew Aiden’s lungs had been injured by the heat and soot. Because he also had inhaled hydrogen cyanide, the trauma team gave him cyanocobalamin, a derivative of vitamin B-12. Cyanide’s effects are similar to carbon monoxide’s in that it competes for the oxygen-carrying blood cells. When it captures enough of them, the body doesn’t get enough oxygen to survive.
As the medication circulated in Aiden’s bloodstream, it bound itself to the hydrogen-cyanide molecules and rendered them harmless. It flushed them out of his body through his urine, causing it to turn purple.
Another team did the same things to Bricen, who arrived shortly after Aiden.
Coleson, still seizing, showed no sign of consciousness as the trauma team went through the procedures with him. All three boys underwent CT scans to rule out internal injuries.
The doctors drew blood to determine the triplets’ carboxyhemoglobin levels. Carboxyhemoglobin is formed when carbon monoxide combines with hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying red blood cells. As it binds to hemoglobin, it diminishes the amount of oxygen the blood can deliver to the organs. No organ of the body needs oxygen more than the brain.
Under normal circumstances, carboxyhemoglobin levels should be zero. Bricen’s was 14.3 percent, Coleson’s was 16.3 percent, and Aiden, who had been closest to the bedroom door, had a level of 22.3 percent—all alarmingly high.
As she sped down I-95, Ami Susan kept phoning people. She learned from neighbors at the scene that the triplets had been taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital, but no one could tell her more than that.
She prayed and tried to maintain an outward calm when she telephoned the hospital and was put through to the emergency department. A care coordinator walked with the phone to one the ER physicians, who told Ami Susan the boys were alive and being admitted for smoke inhalation. It was the first confirmation she’d had that her boys had survived.
Ventilated and stabilized, the triplets were taken to the intensive-care unit on the third floor an hour after they had arrived at Children’s Hospital.
X-rays and scans don’t always reflect current conditions, so the ICU team wanted the boys’ airways examined directly. Dr. Christiane Corriveau, a senior critical-care specialist, called in Dr. Holly Chaney, a pediatric pulmonologist at the hospital.
At Aiden’s bedside, Chaney threaded a slender fiber-optic tube through his ventilator tube down to the bronchi, the conduits for inhaling air into the lungs. The light at the tip of the device illuminated Aiden’s airway; as she looked through the instrument’s eyepiece, the evidence of smoke inhalation was unmistakable.
The lining of the bronchi normally is pink and smooth. Aiden’s was inflamed—swollen and blackened with soot particles that stuck to the walls of his airway, especially on his right side. She probed deeper into that bronchus and saw more soot particles in the upper lobe of the lung.
She performed the same procedure with Bricen and found even more soot in his bronchi. But Coleson’s scoping was the most worrisome. He had inhaled so much smoke that it coated parts of his airway like a black lining. The boys’ airways were too inflamed for Chaney to try suctioning out any of the soot particles.
The next 48 hours would tell a lot about how the boys would do.
When friends of Michael and Ami Susan heard the news that day, many dropped what they were doing and went to the hospital.
Doug Davenport, Aiden’s godfather, was in a meeting in Alexandria when his cell phone began ringing. He kept ignoring it until he saw an e-mail from his friend Nick Lewis, manager of public affairs for UPS: “Call me 911.”
Lewis had learned of the fire from his wife, Courtney, a close friend of Ami Susan’s who had heard of it at work from another friend. She went online and found news reports.
“There’s been a horrible fire at the Petrucellis’,” she told her husband. “Michael and the boys are badly hurt.”
Courtney Lewis told her staff in the marketing-and-communications department of Georgetown University’s Office of Advancement that she had to leave.
Doug Davenport called Lewis back; they rendezvoused and took Davenport’s car to Children’s.
David Ferris, a financial adviser, was a childhood friend of Michael’s—they’d grown up on opposite corners of the same street in Chevy Chase. As boys, they went fishing at Fletcher’s Boat House in DC’s Palisades, often walking the seven miles from Chevy Chase carrying cans of SpaghettiOs in their knapsacks. Both had attended Trinity College in Connecticut. Ferris got in his car and went first to Children’s Hospital and then to Washington Hospital Center.
Richard Latimer Jr., Bricen’s godfather, was also a childhood friend of Michael’s. They’d gone to St. Albans School together. Latimer was at a meeting in downtown Bethesda. When it ended around 2:30, he called his office and learned that several people had been trying to reach him.
Latimer drove to Washington Hospital Center, where he and other arriving friends found Michael shoeless, sooty, and dressed in green hospital scrubs. His hands had been cleaned of glass and wood splinters and rebandaged. He seemed lost. He coughed and had a hard time talking. Fire officials were there to take a statement from him.
From his gurney, Michael asked someone to call Children’s Hospital to ask about his kids.
“They are all there and being treated,” he was told. It was the first indication Michael had that the boys were alive.
David Ferris went to the house and retrieved some of Michael and Ami Susan’s belongings. He was escorted inside by a firefighter. Upstairs, the firefighter pointed to the children’s bedroom door, black on the outside and white on the inside.
“That closed door saved the kids,” the firefighter said, “but even with it shut, we were 30 seconds away from a triple fatality.”
Ferris looked at the soot-covered cribs and nearly broke down.
Ami Susan arrived at Children’s around dusk. Michael was still at Washington Hospital Center. A Children’s staffer took her to the ICU, where friends as well as Michael’s mother and aunt had gathered.
Ami Susan seemed amazingly calm. She thanked people for coming but wanted to see her sons. She met doctors Kurt Newman, chief of surgery, and pediatric surgeon Martin Eichelberger, a member of the Emergency Trauma and Burn Service, in a small conference room. They expressed their sympathies and told her they would be looking in on the boys. They explained they were in a “wait and see” situation with the triplets right now, who were sedated in the ICU.
“You really need to get some rest and take care of yourself,” Eichelberger told her. “It’s the best thing you can do right now.”
She wanted to see her children, but the doctors suggested she not see them alone. Ami Susan asked Courtney Lewis to go with her.
The children were in separate ICU rooms. Ami Susan went first to Aiden’s room, where, as with the other boys, a nurse was stationed at his bedside around the clock. Ami Susan held herself together as she looked at him, soot smudges on his face, through an array of IV lines, tape, tubes, and monitors. Besides being temporarily paralyzed and in medically induced comas, the boys were being administered the sedative agent Atavan and morphine for pain.
Ami Susan reached in, stroked Aiden’s sooty hair, and told him how proud she was of him, how much she loved him. The boy stirred and opened his eyes. They were bloodshot, and tears came pouring out.
“You’ve always been a fighter,” she said. “You wouldn’t ever have been born if you weren’t, and Mommy knows you’re going to get through this.”
Ami Susan always sang to the boys, and they loved one song in particular. She leaned over, held Aiden’s hand, and sang softly:
“I see the moon and the moon sees me, the moon sees somebody I want to see. So God bless the moon and God bless me, God bless somebody I want to see. It seems like God from heaven above, created you for me to love . . . .”
She went next to Bricen’s room, and he seemed to respond when she sang to him, but he didn’t open his eyes. Coleson gave no response at all.
Night had fallen by the time Michael left Washington Hospital Center. By then, both Warfield and Klavon had been treated for their burns and released. Dressed in scrubs and hospital slippers and surrounded by friends, Michael began the short walk to Children’s. Doctors had been wary about his leaving the hospital. His lungs had taken in a lot of toxic soot, and his carboxyhemoglobin level was 15.1 percent—higher than Bricen’s.
Ami Susan knew that the only person who could make her feel better was Michael. After Michael arrived at Children's, the couple met in a small private room, where they embraced and wept and did not speak for several moments.
“I still can’t believed all this happened,” she said softly.
“I know, I know,” he replied. “The fire was just so hot and so fast, so black and choking. I tried over and over to get to the boys, but I could not get them out.”
Worried about his state of mind and the burden he carried, she reassured him that she had seen the children and they were alive and getting the best care.
“I think we should pray,” Ami Susan said as she held Michael’s hand.
As she prayed for the “healing hands of God,” she could feel Michael’s hand squeezing hers tight, and she squeezed back. Afterward, Michael visited each of the children and lingered over them, thinking it might be the last time he’d see the three of them alive.
Firefighters remained at the Petrucelli home and conducted a “hot wash”—a kind of instant oral history of what everyone had done and when they’d done it.
Rick Merck, a senior fire-protection engineer for Montgomery County, had arrived at the scene after the fire was out. Merck works with fire investigators and engineers and conducts computerized “fire modeling” to determine how and why a fire acted the way it did. The goal is to develop better fire-prevention-and-containment strategies.
After going through the house, Merck sought out Oglesby and told him that if he hadn’t done what he did to prevent flashover, the upstairs could have become an incinerator, taking the lives of the triplets as well as firefighters Warfield and Klavon.
He told Oglesby, “You saved the day.”
Children’s Hospital offered Michael and Ami Susan the use of a nearby apartment that the hospital makes available to patients’ families who are a long way from home or no longer have one. Their friends bought clothing and food.
Ami Susan spoke by phone to Sandy Arbuckle, a friend since their days at Butler University in Indianapolis. Arbuckle said she was flying out to be with her.
Ami Susan and Michael didn’t get to bed until early morning. Michael continued coughing, and they slept fitfully.
The ICU doctors had warned the Petrucellis that the body’s natural inflammatory response to injuries would make things worse before they got better—if they were to get better. The doctors worried most about the boys’ brains. They were very concerned about Coleson’s seizure; he remained attached to an electroencephalogram to monitor his brain waves. His brain had been injured by smoke inhalation, and seizure activity could aggravate the injury.
Two of the boys had come into the hospital with common childhood bacterial infections that normally would cause little concern. But because of their injuries and highly stressed conditions, fevers posed dangers to their brains. To minimize that complication, doctors put them on broad-spectrum antibiotics.
Low blood-pressure levels posed the threat of decreased blood supply to their brains, so doctors monitored second by second their blood-pressure readouts and gave them dopamine and other medications when needed to maintain normal pressure. Doctors also had to maintain the right sodium balance in their blood.
The lungs posed the second-greatest worry because inflammation, which all three boys suffered from, impairs the lungs’ ability to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The boys’ lower lung lobes already had collapsed, and the ventilator had to be manipulated to reinflate them.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the boys’ lungs was the very thing saving their lives—the oxygen pumped in by the ventilator. Christiane Corriveau and Nathan Dean, the ICU physicians, had initially set the ventilator’s oxygen level at 100 percent to drive out the carbon monoxide and nourish the body’s tissues with oxygen. But after a time, very high oxygen levels can become toxic. The pressure with which the ventilator pumped in oxygen had to be monitored carefully—if set too high, it could stretch the lungs and cause further damage. The doctors had to walk a fine line to be sure the ventilator’s oxygen and pressure levels were set high enough to help the boys recover but not so high as to cause additional harm.
The morning after the fire, the Petrucellis met with Dr. Corriveau to get a better understanding of the boys’ condition. The doctor related the obstacles the children faced and the dangers that lay ahead.
Corriveau couldn’t say what impact the smoke inhalation and oxygen deprivation might have had on their brains. In her experience, there was no reliable way to tell from their carbon-monoxide levels. She had seen kids with relatively low carbon-monoxide levels who suffered serious brain damage and others with higher levels who suffered no serious damage.
Although all three boys remained in critical condition, she said, Coleson’s status was the most worrisome. He still showed no sign of consciousness. “Coleson,” Corriveau said, “is one sick kid.”
“Is this bad enough that we should call our relatives to come here so they can say their goodbyes?” Ami Susan asked.
Corriveau said softly, “I would if I were you.”
When they left the meeting, Ami Susan prepared to make the call to her 80-year-old mother, Jeannie, who split her time between Indianapolis and Naples, Florida. Ami Susan had talked with her on the drive from Philadelphia and later from the hospital but had been unable to tell her the boys’ medical status. Now she knew. Ami Susan was close to her mother; they had shared the pain of losing her father and, more recently, her older brother, Andy, who died of a heart attack at age 39.
A doting grandmother whom the triplets called Meemaw, Jeannie had spent a difficult night. She knew the news wasn’t good the moment she heard Ami Susan’s voice.
“Mom,” Ami Susan began, “we’ve just met with the doctor, and I think you’d better get up here.”
“Why? What did they tell you?”
“Not much more than you already know. I just think you should be here.”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Mom, the doctors have told us if you want to see them again or hold them again or kiss them again, you should come up here. You have to be honest with me as to whether you are up to it physically, but I couldn’t live with myself if you never saw them again.”
In saying those words to her mother, Ami Susan also spoke them to herself for the first time, acknowledging aloud what her sons faced.
When her mother called back to say she had a plane reservation for Saturday, two days away, Ami Susan told her, “Mom, that might not be soon enough.”
Her mother got a flight for the next morning and packed clothes for a funeral.
It didn’t take fire engineers long to determine the cause of the fire: a short circuit triggered by a splice in a wire connecting the hot-tub motor to the electrical panel. The motor had been replaced recently, and the wire should have been connected directly from the motor to the panel. Instead, the wire had been spliced and covered with a plastic cap. The splice was a shortcut that violated the county’s building and fire codes. “We see this kind of thing all the time,” says Kenneth Korenblatt, who is involved in fire and explosives investigations.
The short circuit ignited material around the hot tub and started the fire. According to the Petrucellis, the electrician who installed the motor had been recommended by the hot-tub company.
Daniel Finkelstein, the triplets’ regular pediatrician, came to see them at Children’s. From office visits, he knew them to be whirlwinds of energy who had defied the odds just by coming into the world. He was encouraged when ICU nurses told him all three needed strong sedation because they were feisty.
“These boys have always been fighters, and they still are,” Finkelstein told the family, “and we have to trust in that.”
Two days after the fire, Dr. Chaney again threaded the fiber-optic tube of her bronchoscope into the triplets’ airways and found them looking much better. Some swelling remained, but they appeared less inflamed. She loosened the remaining soot adhering to the walls of their airways by squirting them with saline solution through a tube attached to the bronchoscope and then suctioning the soot out. Aiden’s and Bricen’s airways appeared healthier than Coleson’s, which was more swollen and inflamed.
Doctors now were able to dial down the oxygen and pressure settings on Aiden’s and Bricen’s ventilators, and their lungs began showing improvement, but Coleson’s course remained rocky. He didn’t look as good as his brothers, and his ventilator setting remained high because his lungs weren’t functioning as well. His blood pressure, temperature, and vital signs remained erratic, and he was less responsive than his brothers. The doctors grew optimistic about Aiden and Bricen.
Ami Susan’s mother and her brother, John, came up from Florida; her sister, Beth, came down from New York. With Michael and Ami Susan they maintained a vigil in the ICU from morning till late at night. Ami Susan sang songs to the boys, brushed their hair, and squeezed their hands.
“A squeeze and a squeeze and an ‘I love you’!” she sang, as her mother had to her. She taught the boys to squeeze back when she sang those words.
In the days following the fire, Ami Susan wondered if Coleson would ever return to her. His little body grew weaker and skinnier, and he often trembled. Even when she played his favorite Johnny Cash song, “Cry, Cry Cry,” he didn’t respond. She stood over him again and again singing, “A squeeze and a squeeze and an ‘I love you,’ ” hoping for a return squeeze that never came. Then suddenly, five days after he’d been admitted, she felt his fingers flutter in her hand.
“Coley, did you feel Mommy?” she asked. She sang the song again and told him she loved him. This time she felt him squeeze back and saw him open his eyes ever so slightly. She turned, smiling and crying, to her mother beside her, and the two women embraced.
The Petrucellis’ friends continued to offer support. Doug Davenport helped set up a Web site that posted information on the boys’ medical status. Other friends took care of their dogs, Sesto and Asti.
Ami Susan worried not only about her sons but also about her husband. Michael had continued to cough so badly that doctors at Children’s had persuaded him to return to Washington Hospital Center. Doctors there took chest x-rays, did blood tests, and checked the oxygen in his blood, which was low but not dangerously so.
Ami Susan was also troubled because she found it hard to connect with Michael. He seemed lost in himself, taking blame for what he saw as his failure to protect the children.
Ami Susan felt her own pain, fearful not just for her children’s survival but also for what might have happened to their brains. A nurse noticed Ami Susan crying, took her hand, and led her to a private room, where she was soon joined by Michael.
There Ami Susan confronted her husband. “Michael,” she said, “I can’t lose you, too. You have to take care of yourself and get well, and you have to be with us because we need you here.”
“I know, I know,” Michael answered.
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.
“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.