To John Murphy and his wife Catherine, it was neighbor looking out for neighbor. To Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, it was an act of heroism.
Last Sunday at approximately 11:50 a.m., Catherine Murphy of Custis Street in the Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County was coming home from the gym. As she drove down the tree-lined street she noticed smoke coming from her neighbor's home at 1109 Custis Street.
Her husband John was on the riding mower cutting the grass. She yelled for him to see if their neighbor, 82-year-old Joan Weinstein was in the home. Catherine Murphy knew that Weinstein had recently undergone hip replacement and could not move quickly.
"I saw a huge amount of smoke pouring out of all elements of the house, particularly under the eves of the roof," John Murphy said. "Then I saw flames coming from one of the windows. If it had been night or doing a weekday, when few people are around, it would have burned to the ground."
Murphy knew that Weinstein often rested in the front bedroom of the single story rambler-style home. He went to a side window and forced it open and began to shout for her.
"The smoke was so thick you couldn't make out anything. Then I saw her and kept yelling for her to get to the front door. I knew I could not get her through the window," he said.
"I went to the front door and kicked it in. I tried to go in but the smoke was too dense so I just kept yelling at her to come to the door. She came out of the smoke to my voice. I could see that her hair had already begun to sort of melt," he remembered.
"Once I got her to the door I led her out of the house. She was exhausted and just sat down on the porch. Then the smoke got heavier so I moved her across the street and got her seated in a lawn chair," Murphy said.
IN THE MEANTIME, Catherine Murphy was going through her own drama. Using her cell phone she called 911. But it connected with an operator in Prince George’s County.
"She [911 operator] had no idea where Custis Street was as well she shouldn't. She asked me if it was an emergency. I told her that's the only reason I'd call 911 and that my neighbor's house was on fire," Catherine Murphy said.
"I kept telling her I was calling from Fairfax County, Virginia. I even gave her the zip code. That's when she switched me over to a Fairfax County 911 operator," Murphy said.
"Once that happened the Fairfax County Fire department was there in no time. The firefighters were very impressive. They were there all day and brought in a lot of expertise to secure the house and belongings once the fire was out," Murphy said.
"They didn't leave until near 5 p.m. and it was a really hot day. The fire was very persistent. It just wouldn't quit in the attic," John Murphy explained. "But the neighborhood really rallied around the situation bringing food and liquids to the firefighters."
Weinstein was transported to Washington Hospital Center were she was treated for smoke inhalation, according to Daniel L. Schmidt, public information officer, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. No word on her condition was available.
MURPHY ALSO called Weinstein's daughter in Berkley, Calif., to alert her about the situation. The American Red Cross is assisting Weinstein with temporary living quarters.
According to the official report from the fire department, first arriving units reported smoke and fire visible from the outside of the structure. The fire was brought under control in approximately 15 minutes.
Three firefighters were transported to Inova Mount Vernon Hospital for heat exhaustion, according no Schmidt. "They were treated and released," he said.
Fire investigators determined the cause of the fire to be accidental, improperly discarded smoking materials. Damage was estimated at approximately $150,000.