Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

A cool head saves lives on New Year’s Day

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
An early-morning fire on New Year’s Day at the home of Windy and James Bond (left) in Clarksburg might have been tragic but for the quick action of Richard Guiffre (second from right) and Chris Shelley (right).
A working smoke alarm, a sprinkler system and a quick-thinking houseguest averted tragedy in Clarksburg early New Year’s Day.

Around 5:45 a.m. Jan. 1, Richard Guiffre of Laurel awoke in the basement of his niece’s Clarksburg home to the sound of the fire alarm and the smell of smoke.

Guiffre and his daughter, Faith, 6, had left Windy Bond, her husband, James, and other adults and children at a New Year’s Eve party upstairs to go to sleep in the basement a little after midnight.

Hours later, ‘‘I jumped up immediately to the piercing sound of a smoke alarm,” Guiffre recounted in an e-mail. ‘‘As I walked up the basement steps, the alarm was going on all over the house and smoke was coming from around the corner, down the hallway.”

Windy and friend Chris Shelley were on the main floor dozing, with a loud movie playing on the TV. Bond’s husband, their two children, three other children and three more adults were sleeping upstairs.

In their tired state, Bond and Shelley did not distinguish the fire alarm from the movie noise, she said, and everyone upstairs slept soundly and did not respond to the alarm.

Meanwhile, Guiffre heard water coming from the basement ceiling and felt extreme heat coming from the living room in the front of the house. He ran up the stairs and saw flames coming from a couch next to the Christmas tree.

‘‘I started to scream as loud as I could, ‘Wake up! The house is on fire! Get the children out of the house! Someone call 911!’” Guiffre wrote.

While some adults ushered the children, who ranged in age from 2 to 9, out of the house and into a car to stay warm, Shelley found a fire extinguisher and put out the couch fire and Guiffre took large pillows to smack down fire in the walls.

Guiffre feared the highly combustible Christmas tree would catch fire and so he and Shelley grabbed the tree and threw it out the French doors and onto the lawn. They tossed the smoldering couch out after it.

‘‘It was truly a blessing. I’m so glad he was there. He was the only one who had his head together and took action,” Windy Bond said of her uncle, Guiffre.

Bond, meanwhile called for help, not realizing her house was on fire. All she saw from the family room in the back of the house was water pouring down from the sprinklers in the front of the house, so when she called 911, she reported that water was everywhere and quickly hung up to check on her children, Alek, 9, and Gwen, 4.

‘‘I think I was in shock,” she said.

A crew arrived from the Clarksburg fire station prepared to deal with a faulty sprinkler system, said Capt. Oscar Garcia, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. Then they saw the smoldering couch and Christmas tree on the lawn and realized they were dealing with a fire.

‘‘The fire was out when we got there,” Garcia said.

Fire investigators believe wax from a candle left burning in the living room ignited plastic decorations, which ignited the couch, he said.

Without the smoke alarm and sprinkler system, the two-year-old house on Windsong Lane in the Parkside development ‘‘could have easily been tragic,” Garcia said. ‘‘It’s not the fire that usually gets people. It’s often the smoke.”

Occupants of the house could have easily been overcome by smoke and carbon monoxide if they had not been alerted to get out of the house quickly, he said.

Only Guiffre was injured in the fire. His foot was broken, apparently because of something he did while throwing the tree out of the house.

Bond is relieved that all she has to deal with is the damage, mostly from the water.

‘‘You hear so many stories of tragedy — this is nothing,” Bond said. ‘‘I just thank God we’re all still here”

She is thankful the loss is limited to the living room furniture, basement furnishings and hardwood floors throughout the main floor.