Valiant Rescue Effort At Maryland Fire

FD Profile

Prince George's County is located along the eastern borders of Washington, D.C., and is home to Andrews Air Force Base, the University of Maryland, the NASA Space Flight Center and other federal, state and local government facilities. The Prince George's County Fire Department is a combination system with about 675 career personnel and over 1,500 active volunteers. There are 47 stations that cover nearly 500 square miles and serve the county's population of 750,000.

Thursday, April 17, 1997, started as a typical spring day in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. The weather was overcast, with temperatures in the mid-50s, with an occasional drizzle. The morning's fire and rescue crews handled the usual smorgasbord of calls for assistance. But just before 9:30 A.M., on a sparsely populated stretch of Baltimore Avenue between the communities of Beltsville and Laurel in Prince George's County, MD, a fire started in an old two-story, wood-frame house. The incident would touch the lives of many people that day.

Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
1. The fire apparently started in the kitchen and went undetected and unnoticed until the smoke filled the first floor.


Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
2. Several civilians and ambulance personnel attempted to use a painter's ladder to locate the child before the arrival of fire apparatus.


Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
3. Initial operations concentrated on rescuing the 14-month-old child on the second floor of the balloon frame house.


Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
4. After several rescue attempts, Firefighter James Almoney exits the window after the second floor becomes untenable.


Tucked between an auto body shop and other commercial structures, the house was a bit out of place and hardly noticeable from nearby U.S. Route 1. The fire apparently started in the kitchen and it went undetected and unnoticed until smoke filled the first floor. As the smoke thickened, an 18-year-old woman quickly headed for the stairs so that she could check on her sleeping 14-month-old daughter. Unable to climb the stairs because of the smoke and heat, the terrified mother ran next door to the auto body shop, where the baby's father was working.

"The mother came running in, and she was screaming, 'The house is on fire! Come and get my baby!' We ran over and went inside… There was a lot of smoke, and it was very hot," said the owner of the auto body shop. (The house had no telephones.) Although workers could make it only about eight to 10 feet inside the burning house, the baby's father pressed on and bounded up the stairs. By this time, the smoke and intense heat had apparently traveled to the second floor. Unsuccessful in his first attempt, the man was forced to jump out a window. It is believed that he received inhalation burns in the process.

As someone went to call 911 to report the fire, with the help of others, the frantic father, unaware of his own injuries, propped a painter's ladder to a second-story window to gain entry but again was forced to retreat because of the heat. By now, as the fire progressed, several passersby, including two off-duty Montgomery County firefighters, Bob Holmes and Anthony Crump, and private ambulance worker Pete Crabill, noticed the smoke and stopped.

At the same time, Beltsville Ambulance 319, enroute to an emergency call on Virginia Manor Road, advised the Prince George's County Bureau of Fire/Rescue Communications via radio of "smoke in the area" on Baltimore Avenue, somewhere north of Muirkirk Road. However, the crew Ambulance 319 could not determine the exact location of the origin of smoke and continued on its original call. Simultaneously, as the 911 call was being received from the auto body shop, reporting a fire nearby, the "street" assignment was dispatched consisting of four engine companies, Beltsville (31), Beltsville/ Calverton (41), Branchville (11), Greenbelt (35), one truck company, Laurel (Tower 10) and a battalion chief for "smoke in the area" of Muirkirk Road and Baltimore Avenue.

A few minutes later, while responding south on Baltimore Avenue from Laurel to the call on Virginia Manor Road with Ambulance 319, members of the Medic 3 (Laurel/Rescue) crew came upon the house fire and saw civilians attempting to enter a second-floor window via a ladder. Advising Communications that they were on the scene of a "working" house fire with a child reportedly trapped on the second floor, they noted their location as being north of Cinder Lane, a seldom-used service road off Route 1, well north of Muirkirk Road.

Upon arrival, Paramedic II Angie Turcotte learned that several civilians, including the child's father, had made unsuccessful attempts at a ladder rescue. She decided a similar tactic but was pushed back by the intense heat. In the meantime, hearing confirmation of a trapped child, Battalion Chief Pat Breen requested a Rescue Squad. Rescue Squad 49 (Laurel/Rescue) was dispatched.

Within one minute of Medic 3's report, Engine 311 arrived, confirmed the address to be 12802 Baltimore Ave. and reported a "child trapped." Upon arrival, the structure, a two-story, balloon-constructed, wood-frame house was involved with heavy fire on the first floor and fully charged with thick, black smoke throughout. The house was atop a small hill at the end of a dirt access road about 150 feet from Baltimore Avenue. The house was over one half mile north of the original dispatch assignment location which would actually put it in Laurel's first-response district. The closest hydrant was more than a half mile to the south near an overpass on Muirkirk Road.

Two minutes after the arrival of Engine 311, Tower 10 arrived, followed by Breen, Engines 412, 113 and 112, Rescue Squad 49 and Ambulance 498. Just five minutes after the arrival of the first engine, Engine 352 reported on scene. Two additional engines, 12 (College Park) and 92 (Hillandale-Montgomery County), were dispatched to assist with water supply, along with Rescue Squad 14 (Berwyn Heights) for accountability. While enroute, Engine 121 was involved in a minor accident near its station, at which time Riverdale Engines 71 and 72 were dispatched. Engine 121 cleared and continued its response. Eventually, 58 personnel would be on the scene.

Initial fire department operations concentrated on the rescue of the child trapped on the second floor. The first two arriving firefighters on Engine 311, career Firefighter James Almoney and volunteer Firefighter Ron Haufe, were told by the parents that they believed their child was last seen sleeping in the second-floor bedroom and that several unsuccessful rescue attempts had already been made.

Firefighter Forced To Escape

Almoney, with help from Haufe, climbed the ladder that was already in place and attempted to locate the child on the second floor. After several attempts, working without the protection of a hoseline and as conditions quickly worsened, Almoney was forced to dive out the window into the arms of Haufe, who was on the ladder. Both firefighters were knocked from the ladder to the ground. As this was happening, other firefighters attempted to gain entry through the interior and exterior of the burning structure but encountered various obstacles.

Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
5. Tremendous conditions cause Almoney to exit quickly, knocking himself and Firefighter Ron Haufe off the ladder as others try to help. Almoney suffered a shoulder injury and burns.


Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
6. The closest hydrant was located a half mile away.


Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
7. The available on-scene water supply carried by apparatus was 2,000 gallons and was used up before a continuous water supply could be established.


Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
8. The quick-spreading blaze was possibly attributed to propane gas used for cooking as well as the balloon frame construction.


All attempts to attack and confine the flames became ineffective due to the rapid progression of the fire unknown to the firefighters, the fire was being fed by a small propane tank. The remote location of the house caused logistical problems for engine crews and ultimately required a water relay evolution. The on-scene water supply of 2,000 gallons, carried by responding units, was depleted prior to the completion of a continuous water source from the closest hydrant. Because first-arriving firefighters concentrated on the rescue attempt, while others were not familiar with the location of the nearest water source, it took about 30 minutes to establish an adequate and continuous water supply.

Three firefighters and both parents were injured in their attempts to make a rescue. Almoney was burned and suffered an injured shoulder as he attempted the initial search and rescue for the trapped child. Captain Charlie Flinn, the officer on Engine 411, the second engine to arrive, directed his crew to handjack a line to Engine 311 and advance a pre-connected two-inch attack line from Engine 311 to the front door. Flinn was then directed to advance a pre-connected 1 3/4-inch hoseline up the ladder to the second floor in another effort to rescue the trapped child. He was burned while attempting to gain access through the window.

Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
9. After many rescue attempts a charged 1 3/4-inch handline was brought to the second floor window in another attempt; that firefighter suffered burns.


Photo by Mark E. Brady, Asst. PIO/Prince George's County FD
10. There was a delay in notification because the 1940s-era farmhouse had no telephones or smoke detectors.


Captain Victor Ferreira, station commander at Beltsville Station 31, was not in quarters at the time of the call. He arrived shortly after the fourth engine, Engine 11, was in the initial stages of its evolution. He climbed the painter's ladder to the second-floor window and attempted to gain entry but was unable to do so. Ferreira then found an interior stairwell, where he encountered heavy fire. Conditions quickly became untenable and he was burned as he exited the structure.

Volunteer Deputy Chief Andy Bowen arrived, assumed command and requested two additional command officers. Breen took over operations command as various sector commands were established.

The child's pregnant mother was distraught and suffering from smoke inhalation; the father, in his attempt to save his daughter, received burns with respiratory involvement. Both parents and three firefighters were eventually transported to area hospitals. The mother was treated and released, as were Almoney and Ferreira. Flinn was held for observation at the Washington D.C. Hospital Center Burn Unit. The girl's father was taken to a local hospital and later transferred to the John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Burn Unit in Baltimore, in critical condition.

Contributing Factors

As a result of this quick-spreading fire, despite the efforts of civilians and firefighters, the baby died. The cause of death has yet to be determined. Initial investigation by the Prince George's County Fire Department Bureau of Fire Investigations has revealed that the area of origin appears to be the first-floor kitchen. A contributing factor to the rapid spread of the fire was the involvement of propane gas, reportedly used for cooking, as well as the wood-frame, balloon construction of the house. Fire investigators believe there was a delay in notification of the fire, primarily due to the fact that the 1940s-era farmhouse did not have working smoke detectors or a telephone.

The fire caused an estimated $90,000 in damage, destroying the house. The cause of the fire is under investigation but appeared to be accidental.

Pete Piringer is public information officer for the Prince George's County, MD, Fire Department.