Twist of fate puts crew on street to save Catonsville couple from burning house

It was early in the morning of Sept. 6 and Bruce Wood and his two-person recycling collecting crew had finished their route in Oella and were making their way through the residential neighborhoods of western Catonsville.

Normally, Wood and his crew pick up the glass, cans, paper and other items residents leave for recycling in Catonsville first, then finish in Oella.

But because they were running slightly late that Friday, Wood decided to reverse the route.

Little did he know, that minor adjustment would help save the lives of two Catonsville residents and their dog that morning.

Wood and his crew members were collecting the recycling on Bathurst Road when Wood said they started to see smoke at the end of the street.

"It was chilly that morning, but not chilly enough that you would have a fire going," Wood said in an interview Sept. 18. "Then I started noticing like this black smoke and I thought, 'Man, something isn't right.' "

Shortly after 6 a.m., Wood and his crew arrived to find the roof of the house at 516 Bathurst Road engulfed in flames.

Inside were 61-year-old Irvin Miller, his wife, Patricia, also 61, and their golden retriever, Maizee.

At that point, Wood said, instinct took over and the crew sprang into action.

"I stopped the truck, jumped out and told one of the boys, Jason, to call 9-1-1. I said, 'Al, you just start banging on the door as hard as you can.'

"I ran around back, and when I got around back, the top of the porch roof was on fire," the 54-year-old Middle River resident said. "I went onto the porch and just started slamming on the windows and trying to get through the door.

"I was just getting ready to go break the front window -- that's when we saw the people coming out," Wood said.

The fire had begun in the attic and, because the smoke from the fire rose with the heat, the fully functioning smoke detectors below the attic in the Millers' house never went off.

"My wife and I and my dog were sleeping," Irvin Miller said.

"There was a tremendous amount of pounding on the front door and the doorbell was ringing," he said. "I looked at these guys [when I opened the door] and they said, 'Your house is on fire! Your house is on fire!' "

Miller said the experience was surreal.

"I can't express the feeling that I had," Miller said of that morning. "It's like being a homeless person.

"I was sitting on the sidewalk, watching my house burn down, watching my wife cry her eyes out."

Kathy Sulewski lives next door to the Millers and is best friends with Patricia Miller.

She said the couple and their dog would not have made it out of the house alive, had it not been for Wood and his crew.

"Most people in my neighborhood don't leave [for work] until 7 [a.m.] or later," Sulewski said. "So who knows if anyone would have seen it [the fire] or noticed it before the trash men?

"Thursdays, they [Wood and his crew] come at 4 in the morning [to collect the trash] and Fridays, they come any time between 4 and 8, sometimes later, for recycle," she said on the weekly schedule for LJC, a contractor for Baltimore County that picks up trash and recycling.

Wood said it was fate that caused him to change his route and arrive at the Millers' house later than normal, but just in time to notice the fire that morning.

"I don't believe in coincidence, but I do believe that every moment in time is where you're supposed to be," Wood said. "And for whatever reason, that's where I was at that minute.

"Had I done Bathurst first like I normally would have done, I don't know," he said. "I believe the house would've really been burned a lot worse than it was, and I don't know if they would've lived or what.

"I think that something really bad could've happened," Wood said. "I'm glad they're alright, and I'm glad that we were able to do something good."

Helped by the American Red Cross, the Millers moved into a new single-family home on Sept. 17 that they will rent for four to six months while their home is rebuilt.

If given the chance to talk to Wood, Al and Jason again, Miller said he would have only one thing to say.

" 'Thanks for saving our lives, guys,' " he said. "It's real simple. Without them being there, we probably would not have made it."

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