Saturday, April 21, 2012
Kevin O’Toole’s ride pulled up in front of MedStar Washington Hospital Center just before he was rolled through the automatic hospital doors Friday afternoon. It was Truck 9, from the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department, and the men of Company 309 had saved the sergeant the shotgun seat for the short ride home that was 56 days in the making.
O’Toole, 22, was seriously injured Feb. 24 in a wind-fueled fire in a vacant Riverdale Heights house, an incident determined to be arson.
Seven volunteer firefighters were hurt in the blaze, two critically, when they were engulfed by a blowtorch-like jet of flame that shot out of the house in what authorities described as a freak occurrence. Authorities are still investigating and have yet to make any arrests.
O’Toole suffered second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body and underwent 10 operations at Washington Hospital Center, where doctors grafted skin on his hands, his knees, his calves, his arms, his stomach, his sides and his shoulder.
On Friday, he became the last of the seven injured firefighters to be released from the hospital, a symbolically important event that meant the Feb. 24 call could finally be considered complete, Bladensburg Chief Randy Kuenzli said.
“It gives us a lot of closure,” said Kuenzli, who called O’Toole “a true hero.”
Discharged from the Burn Step-Down Unit on the hospital’s third floor, where he’d been holed up in Room 10-3E, O’Toole rose from his wheelchair in front of the automatic front doors, hugged a nurse, then walked — gingerly — toward Truck 9.
Nearly 20 men from Company 309 clapped as O’Toole approached, his hands, arms and legs dressed in fresh bandages, an umbrella shielding him from the sun he’d neither seen nor felt since February.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said, after shaking each man’s hand. It wasn’t necessarily a reunion, because the department hadn’t left his side since he was hurt, O’Toole said. “Every night, one guy stayed with me, so I was never really alone,” he said.
His parents, Jeff and Jane, watched quietly from behind a bank of television cameras. On Saturday, they said, they were taking their son back to Bethpage, N.Y. If his recovery and rehabilitation go well, Kevin O’Toole said, he would probably resume working as a volunteer firefighter.
First, though, he had to return home, to the Bladensburg fire station where he lived. Per fire service tradition, he would go back on the same ladder truck he rode to the fateful fire, at the vacant home in the 6400 block of 57th Avenue.
The men of 309 gathered at the passenger’s side seat, which was covered with sheets, and O’Toole climbed into the cab and lowered himself slowly. “Ohhhhhh,” said his mother with a grimace. She averted her eyes.
“Rock and roll, guys,” said Vince Pickle, the ladder truck’s driver on the night of the fire call and again now. He fired up the engine, turned on the flashing lights and pulled away from the hospital, with O’Toole grinning out the window, his bandaged and gloved right thumb raised high.