- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Rescuing people from burning buildings is all in a day's work for John Turner, who matter-of-factly philosophizes about the rewards of his work.

"When push comes to shove, if you've got to give your life to save someone else, that's what it's all about," said the D.C. firefighter, who nearly lost his life last weekend doing his duty.

During a two-alarm blaze last Saturday at the Garfield Terrace Senior Building in the 2300 block of 11th Street NW, Firefighter Turner rushed in without protective gear and rescued two elderly women. But superheated air burned his lungs during the rescue, leaving him almost unable to breathe.

He is being treated in intensive care at the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest and is expected to make a full recovery, fire officials said.

In a raspy voice punctuated by bursts of coughing during a telephone interview from his hospital room, Firefighter Turner said he was working overtime last Saturday on Ambulance 24 and had just dropped off a patient at Howard University Hospital when he and his partner noticed smoke rising above the apartment building.

Despite a lack of protective gear, he ran up to the sixth floor of the building where the fire had started and banged on apartment doors, but got no responses. He raced up to the seventh floor, where he helped one elderly woman escape, then went back into the building, returning to the sixth floor.

Firefighter Turner said experience has taught him that people who are sleeping don't always respond to the first knock, and some people lock their doors and stay in their apartments during a fire.

In his second pass on the sixth floor he had to feel his way along the "pitch-dark" hallway, where he stumbled upon an elderly woman two doors from where the fire had started.

The woman didn't want to leave the building, but Firefighter Turner pulled her to the floor, and they tried to crawl out. He lost his way and began calling for help, he recalled, when a police officer heard him and shined his flashlight on the exit sign.

After carrying the woman downstairs, Firefighter Turner went back into the building and was assisting fire crews in spreading hose to the sixth floor when he was overcome by the heat and smoke.

He said the adrenaline rush kept him from immediately realizing the seriousness of his injuries.

"My chest was hurting me real bad, but I didn't realize it until the fourth time I got down the steps," he said.

Emergency crews on the scene quickly noticed that Firefighter Turner was injured far worse than anyone who had been evacuated.

"I kept asking how the ladies were," he said. "They said, 'They're all right. Just worry about yourself now.'"

He was taken by ambulance to MedSTAR and fell unconscious until Monday afternoon. He remains on oxygen therapy, is in fair condition and could be hospitalized for up to two weeks.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner M.A. "Doll" Fitzgerald, who lives in the 10-story building, said about 200 residents in the 227 units are handicapped and that 24 are wheelchair-bound.

"It was a heroic effort on his part," Mrs. Fitzgerald said.

Firefighter Turner, who joined the department as a cadet in 1987, said he tried to save the women as intensely as if one had been his own mother or grandmother.

"That was the first thing on my mind," he recalled. "I wasn't going to let this lady stay up there. If we had to die, we were going to die together."

Alan Etter, spokesman for the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said the fire, which caused $60,000 worth of damage, was started by improperly discarded smoking materials.

Mr. Etter praised the rescue, saying, "There is at least one person who is alive based on what he did."

"I just know I did my job," Firefighter Turner said. "That was good enough for me."

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