One harrowing hour

Blast: Two firefighters trapped in a home explosion joked, talked football and waited for the rescue they knew was coming.

November 05, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County Fire Lt. Dave Angelo and Firefighter Jay Ringgold were called to check on a possible gas leak at an Essex duplex Sunday, it seemed like a routine call.

Then, there was the boom.

"I remember the flash," Ringgold, an 18-year veteran of the department, said yesterday in his first public comments on the explosion. "I remember being lifted up in the air, then I was completely encased in debris. It was a split-second."

Even after the explosion, Angelo recalled, "I thought we might be able to stand up and walk out of there."

But within a few minutes, they realized they hadn't just been knocked down. They had been buried beneath plaster walls and two-by-fours when the foundation of the duplex in Stemmers Run collapsed.

"Once I knew I was alive, ... I felt my hands, made sure I could move my legs," said Ringgold, who strained his knee trying to improve his circulation.

Angelo, who suffered first- and second-degree burns on his ears and neck, called out a Mayday.

Once the dispatcher acknowledged they needed help, "I knew we'd be fine," Angelo said. "I knew my brothers and sisters were coming to get me."

Recounting their harrowing experience at a news conference at the Essex fire station, the firefighters said they could see and talk to each other while trapped beneath 8 to 10 feet of debris.

They couldn't move. But on the radio, they could hear the familiar voices of firefighters from their station and neighboring companies. They spent most of the time joking, talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Ravens.

"After about 45 minutes, I said, `OK, this isn't funny anymore.' ... This wasn't how I planned to spend my Sunday night. I thought I might get some administrative paperwork done, get on the treadmill, watch the Steelers lose," said Angelo, a Pittsburgh fan who is ribbed about his football loyalties at the Essex station.

Above ground, the rescue efforts were frantic.

Firefighter Sam Valencia was pacing, worried about his friends. He had just been in the house checking the second floor for occupants and was on his way to check on the next-door neighbors when the house exploded. He was blown across the lawn, along with firefighter Louis Schaller, 44, who had been setting up a fan on the front porch to ventilate the house.

"I felt so helpless," said Valencia, 32. "I had to stay until they got the guys out of there."

Within 10 minutes, the collapse rescue and advanced tactical rescue teams pulled the homeowner from the rubble. Cecil W. Himes, 38, was rushed to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center burn unit, where he remained in critical condition yesterday.

Engine companies and more than 125 firefighters and paramedics filled the streets, everyone wanting to help in some way as the search continued for the firefighters.

"Not everyone can dig," said Battalion Chief Joe Fannon Jr. "But everyone wants to."

Both trapped firefighters were wearing breathing masks. But Fannon knew their air supply would run out before rescuers reached them. So the crews piped fresh air to the firefighters with a portable duct snaked through the debris.

It took about an hour for the rescuers to reach Angelo and Ringgold, and by the time they were pulled free, a crowd of 300 to 400 people had gathered.

"Everyone was cheering as [Ringgold] was carried past on a stretcher," said Fire Chief John J. Hohman. "He put his arm up the way football players do. The people went wild. It's good to know people appreciate the job our guys do."

Fire investigators are trying to pinpoint the source of the gas leak, what caused it, and whether it was an accident or intentional.

Michael Miliken, a 49-year-old electrician who lived next door in the duplex with his wife for 19 years, was disappointed with the fire and police response to the explosion, his lawyer, David B. Shapiro said yesterday. Shapiro said the couple have been victims of looting.

County police said they have had daily contact with the couple. Spokesman Bill Toohey said investigators had given Miliken cell phone numbers and pagers so that he could contact them if there were concerns, but Miliken had not called.

Angelo, a 41-year-old father of three whose wife is a Howard County firefighter, didn't see the explosion's aftermath until he watched the news footage at the hospital. "It was kind of shocking to see."

Ringgold, 40, still hasn't told his two daughters in Illinois what happened. "I guess I'm trying to protect them. I don't want them to be worried."

He added: "Sunday changed my life. God and his angels were looking out for us. ... I tell everyone, `Smell the flowers while you can.' Nothing's guaranteed."

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