They were standing across the street from a three-alarm fire when they heard a call that would p
ut them into the ranks of distinguished firefighters.
The thing is, the four men from the Rapid Intervention Team responded to the call like they had been trained. They didn’t think about being heroes. They didn’t think about the impossibility of what they were about to do.
The members of Station 11’s Rescue Squad 411 heard the mayday call and went into the burning Franconia townhouse “without thinking,” Lt. Danny Urps said. “To us, we were just doing our jobs.”
To a committee that annually selects Valor Award recipients for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce to give to local public safety personnel, the men did enough to get the Gold Medal of Valor on March 13 the highest honor the chamber bestows and one that has been given to only a handful of people in 30 years.
“When we hear the mayday call on the radio, it is the worst call we can have,” said Urps, a 26-year veteran with the department and father of a 9-year-old girl. “It means that one of us is in trouble.”
Firefighters called to a townhouse at around 3:20 p.m. on May 27, 2007, saw heavy smoke and fire quickly spreading to other townhouses, according to the county’s Fire and Rescue Department. When two firefighters looking for victims inside the structure got trapped, they called for help.
One was able to break out of a window before the team got into the home, leaving one for the firefighters to rescue as the structure continued to burn. Their search took them to a burning third floor.
Master Technician John Linhart and Hazardous Materials Technician William Ward went to the right, and Urps and Master Technician Joseph Swift went to the left to look for the victim.
“Nothing else was in my mind other than running up there and getting the firefighter out and being happy about it,” Ward, a member of the county’s fire department for four years.
While he was in the burning house, though, Ward did think about his wife and how 40 minutes earlier she had told him she was expecting their third child, he said.
Meanwhile, the smoke and heat became stronger, forcing the men to crawl along the floor as much as possible, Urps said.
By the time they found the victim and began dragging him toward the stairs, the rope they had tied to the front door as a marker had melted. They couldn’t find their way out, blocked by a door that had slammed shut at the top of the stairs.
It wasn’t until the next day, after Linhart, a 20-year veteran of the county’s fire department, and his wife Christine had finished telling their four children what had happened, that she broke down. “I think she had time to reflect on what had happened after that point,” Linhart said.
Linhart said at one point he wasn’t sure the rescue crew would get out of the house.
“It was truly a team effort to get that guy and get out of there,” Swift, a 28-year veteran of the department, said.
Urps finally found the door, and the rest of the firefighters were able to crawl, or be dragged, to safety, but not before the blaze destroyed much of their gear. Some of the men were burned.
The search and rescue “all took less than five minutes, but at the time, it felt like it was about five days,” Urps said.
The fire caused by improperly discarded smoking materials damaged six townhouses and caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage.
The crew was at a drill in January when they found out they were receiving the rare award, Ward remembers. “We were pretty surprised and very humbled,” he said. “There are plenty of guys who do the job for 25 and 30 years who do plenty of heroic things worth mentioning.”
The award was presented to the four men at the McLean Hilton before the county’s public safety officials and elected leaders.
Master Police Officer Michael Garbarino and Detective Vicky Armel both both fatally shot in the line of duty are among the few others who have received the Gold Medal of Valor from the county’s chamber.