Riverdale fire: Assessing the aftermath

PG County Executive Rushern Baker and Fire Chief Marc Bashoor at Medstar with Michael McClary, 19, a Riverdale Volunteer firefighter.

The 9-1-1 calls from 57th Avenue in Riverdale began shortly before 9 p.m. Friday night.

"I see a house on fire over here," said one.

"Everything's on fire--smoke and flames... the wind," said another.

Dennis Umcor was among those seeing fire shoot from a compact home on the 6400 block.

"I see a lot of flame coming up to the house," he says. "It's like a bomb or something. It's a lot of fire everywhere."

Witnesses described a wind-whipped fire scene.

Arriving firefighters seeing a car parked outside, ran in to search the home, trying to bring the flames under control.

"They just said it was so quick, nobody really knew what was hitting them," recalls Cheryl McClary, a mother and former fire fighter.

Her son Michael, a Riverdale Volunteer, and Bladensburg Volunteers Ethan Sorrell and Kevin O'Toole, were among a team of seven firefighters confronted by a column of flame--a flash fire.

"The air fueled the fire and made a big whirlwind inside the house and the fire surrounded the firefighters," says Gary Branch, who lives across the street.

Barely eight seconds after the seven-member crew entered the burning building, emergency identifiers were activated on their radios, indicating something was wrong.

The fire was building into a highly dangerous--and potentially deadly--funnel of flames.

"The wind was blowing from the rear," says Prince George's County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor. "Pushed it, pushed that thermal column right up through the steps and out the front door and on top of those seven guys."

The entire crew escaped with their lives.

But after being transported by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, Sorrell now has critical burns to his airway and O'Toole is critically burned over 40 percent of his body.

There are some encouraging signs. Visitors say Sorrell, 21, with a tube down his throat, is communicating by writing notes. O'Toole, 22, is talking and alert.

"It's tough", says Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Chief Randy Kuenzli. "They're good young men, and that will definitely help them pull through this."

McClary, 19, has rib cartilage damage and first degree burns on his hands. His mother says he's been released from the hospital and is recuperating at his Bladensburg fire house, where he can be with his fire department buddies.

"Prayers are with them and wish the best for them," says Branch.

Late Saturday afternoon as fire investigators combed the gutted home looking for clues, Cheryl McClary drove up. She wanted to see the place where fire put her son's life in danger.

"Very thankful," she says.

Grateful, she adds, that he's safe and alive.

"I now know how my parents felt when I was doing (firefighting). I'm proud of him."

Authorities as of yet, have no cause for the fire, which broke out in a vacant house.