Sunday, April 20, 2014 1:45 AM
Published on: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
By Jim Davis
One year ago, seven Prince George’s County volunteer firefighters were injured while battling an arson fire in a vacant house in Riverdale Heights.
On the night of Feb. 24, 2012, volunteer firefighters from Riverdale, Bladensburg, College Park and other nearby departments responded to 6404 57th Avenue just after 9 p.m. for a reported house fire. Firefighters arrived on the scene to find fire coming from the basement area of the one-story house. Neighbors did not know if the house was occupied, but there was a car parked in the driveway.
One group of firefighters went to rear of the house to attack the fire in the basement area, while a second group of seven firefighters from Bladensburg and Riverdale entered the house from the front to conduct a search for possible occupants.
Moments later, the firefighters who entered the house to search for victims were ordered out of the house due to increasing fire conditions. As the firefighters were exiting the house, a fireball barreled up the basement stairs, said Mark Brady, chief spokesman for Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department.
“A sudden rush of air from the high winds caused by either a door or a basement window being opened or broken out caused the fire to intensify and sent a fireball of flames up the steps to the first floor and out the front door and on top of the seven firefighters who were leaving the house,” Brady said.
Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said, “It only took eight seconds for this to happen from the time the evacuation tones were sounded to the time the fire reached the front door from the basement.”
Six firefighters were transported from the scene by medic units. The seventh firefighter, who suffered serious burns, was transported by Medevac to a burn center in Washington, D.C.
Six of the seven firefighters were hospitalized for a short period of time, but the seventh firefighter, Kevin O’Toole of the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department, was hospitalized for several weeks with burns to his arms, hand and legs. He is now home in Suffolk County, N.Y., and continues to undergo physical therapy.
In an interview with The Sentinel, O’Toole said, “It’s been year, and I am making progress every day. I’m defeating the odds day in and day out. I’m not sure when I can go back to what I love to do.”
“This cowardly crime is unconscionable to me. I have assured the nearly 3,000 men and women of the Prince George ’s County Fire/EMS Department — and I assure you — that we will leave no stone unturned to bring anyone responsible for this to justice,” Bashoor said.
Prince George’s County State ’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said, “When we find the person or the individuals who did this, they will be charged with first-degree arson along with other charges.”
Alsobrook said that the penalty for first-degree arson is up to 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
The house on 57th Avenue in Riverdale Heights remains vacant. The doors and windows are boarded up and posted with “No Trespassing” signs.
“We have exhausted all of our leads in this case,” said Brady.
Brady indicated that no other fires have been set in the community since the 57th Avenue arson incident.
Deputy Fire Chief Scott K. Hoglander said, “We are still asking help from the community. If anyone has any type of information on this case they should call the Prince George’s County Arson Tip Line at 301-77-ARSON. The smallest tip could be the tip we are looking for.”
The person who provides a tip that leads to the capture of the arsonist may be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.