It wasn’t just the smell of smoke that roused Angel Fiorini from bed on that cold night in October 2016.
It was the sensation of barely breathing, as if through a straw, she said.
“I just couldn’t quite figure out why I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
Fiorini and her family had recently moved into a doublewide manufactured home in Otis Orchards, and they were in the process of renovating it.
A wall-mounted heater hummed through the night. The ceiling was stuffed with pink foam insulation and covered only with clear sheets of plastic. Interior walls had been torn down – walls that might have slowed an aggressive fire. And as firefighters would later note, the home had no working smoke detectors.
If there were such a thing as a recipe for disaster, this was it. Fiorini and her three children made it out alive, with some serious burns, thanks to her own heroic acts and those of a passerby, Matt Burson, who just happened to be a nurse and former firefighter.
The two are among 20 people in the United States and Canada who recently received medals and money awards from the Carnegie Hero Fund, which was founded in 1904 by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Some of the awards were granted posthumously.
Kids were ‘terrified’
The fire started around midnight on Oct. 28 in the kitchen area of Fiorini’s home in the 6000 block of North Starr Road. She said the cause isn’t settled, but she suspects it was the heater, the only appliance that had been installed.
Her husband, Aaron, wasn’t home at the time, so it was up to her to save the kids.
By the time she jostled herself awake and emerged from her bedroom, flames had consumed about a third of the house, she said. Instinctively, she scooped up two of the children – 1-year-old Vinnie under one arm, 3-year-old Rosalie under the other – and dropped them near the front door.
“They were terrified because they had no idea why they were just ripped out of bed,” she said.
Fiorini initially thought it would be simple to return inside for her eldest child, Gianna, who was 7 at the time. But now the smoke was black and billowing, and Fiorini could hear windows shattering from the intense heat.
Fiorini dropped to the ground – first on her hands and knees, then on her stomach – and crawled toward the bedroom. She pulled Gianna partway to the front door as smoke filled their lungs.
And then Angel Fiorini lost consciousness.
At the time, Burson, a registered nurse, was working for Frontier Behavioral Health. He was only scheduled to work weekends but, in an unusual move, had decided to pick up the Thursday shift as well.
Burson said one of his coworkers, a New Yorker who had never learned to drive and was living in Newman Lake, needed a lift to and from work that night. Their shift ended around 11:30 p.m.
“For whatever reason,” Burson said, “I went kind of a back way.”
Shortly after rounding a bend, the coworker pointed outside at Fiorini’s house and told Burson to slow down.
“So I look over, and it’s just glowing,” Burson said. “It’s full-blown orange. There’s just massive amounts of smoke.”
They were on scene before any neighbors or firefighters, so Burson, who had been a volunteer firefighter some two decades earlier, jumped into action.
Recounting this story in his living room with Fiorini seated beside him, Burson ribbed her for living in what he described as “a compound.”
“Their fence is not a fence. It’s like this wall, barricading them off from the rest of civilization,” he said, while she rolled her eyes. “And you’d think the gate would be on the front, right? So I’m running up and down the street looking for this gate. No gate! No gate in front of the house.”
Burson found the gate on the north side of the house. The fire was at least 10 feet away, he said, but the metal already was hot enough to singe his hands.
Peeking between slats in the fence, he spotted Fiorini’s two younger children – Rosalie just outside the house, Vinnie lying in the doorway, with his legs inside.
“All you could hear was the crackle of the fire and these two babies sitting there crying,” Burson, who has three children of his own, recalled.
After scrambling over the fence, Burson went inside. The 46-year-old recalled being blinded by smoke as molten plastic dripped from the ceiling onto his nursing scrubs. Then his hand fell on the charred body of Angel Fiorini, and he assumed she was dead or close to it.
“I got her in close to me, and then I scooted on my butt back to the door,” he said. “And right then I thought, ‘Well, why was she in there? Why would Mom go back in the house? The two kids are out here.’”
Burson wondered if it was a dog or a cat that Angel Fiorini had been looking for. Then Gianna let out a cry, and back into the inferno he went.
Road to recovery
Angel Fiorini, now 33, suffered burns on nearly half of her body and spent five weeks, often unconscious, at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle – a remarkably short stay given the extent of her injuries.
Gianna’s burns were less extensive but still serious.
Fiorini said she’s thankful that insurance has covered most of their medical bills, even the emergency helicopter flights across the state. She and the kids still suffer chronic respiratory problems. The house was a complete loss and has been costly for the family, she said.
Shortly after the fire, a neighbor salvaged a few family photos from the rubble of the Fiorini home, including one from a visit to Chuck E. Cheese, she said.
Burson also recovered from minor burns. He said he’s just happy no children lost their mother that night.
He recalled watching medics help Fiorini into an ambulance and calling her husband to explain what had happened.
“I honestly did not think she would live,” Burson said.