Raymond Tosh never saw it coming.
He took a fire hose seven steps up a stairwell toward a flame-filled apartment in Northwest Baltimore yesterday morning, briefly turning around to get some kinks out of the hose. When he looked back toward the flames, all he saw was a 4-foot ball of fire.
And it was heading his way.
"It was just a normal fire, and all of a sudden it went wrong," Firefighter Tosh recalled from his home in Finksburg.
The fire, which burned out two apartments in the 3000 block of Thorndale Ave. and caused about $48,000 in damage, was caused by a child playing with matches in a second-floor apartment, Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said.
The blaze, which firefighters extinguished in less than an hour, nearly cost the 44-year-old Firefighter Tosh his life.
When he saw the fireball, Firefighter Tosh leaped down the stairs. Ronald Green, who was holding the hose at the bottom of the stairwell, was hurled out of the building.
The fireball followed, erupting out of the building's front door. But Firefighter Tosh was stuck inside.
So Firefighter Green, who had been knocked to the ground by the blast, went back in.
"The first thing I thought of was him, because I knew he had to be in trouble. . . . I just got my butt up off the ground and made sure he was OK," said Firefighter Green, 27 and a resident of Westminster, recalling how he pulled his colleague out of the burning building.
Both firefighters' helmets were blown off by the fireball, but neither was seriously injured. Firefighter Tosh suffered second-degree burns to both ears, the top of his head and his right leg. Firefighter Green suffered a second-degree burn to his left hand, first-degree burns to his left ear and the side of his head, singed hair and a bruised right knee.
Both men were treated and released from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center's burn unit.
Both said they will never forget the fireball, which blew heavy metal grates and plastic windows as much as 30 feet from the front of the house.
"I've never seen anything like it in my 20 years," Firefighter Tosh said. Technically, the fireball was what is called a flashover, a natural phenomenon triggered when the temperature gets so hot that everything in a room to ignites simultaneously, Chief Torres said.
Flashovers are rare, but they have become increasingly more common because of modern household materials, said Stephen Foley, a senior fire safety specialist with the National Fire Protection Association.
"If you look at all the plastics and the all the other materials in these newer homes, they burn much hotter," he said.
Yesterday's fireball wasn't caused by a backdraft, which occurs when oxygen enters an airtight room. acting Battalion Chief Gene Snyder, who was in charge of the fire scene, said he saw flames coming out of the second- and third-story windows, which would have prevented a backdraft.
Chief Snyder said he intends to recommend Firefighter Green, a new member of the Fire Department, for a commendation for rescuing Firefighter Tosh.
Firefighter Tosh, a 20-year veteran, said, "I don't think this is going to make me quit. It was definitely a scare."
Firefighter Green said the incident confirms why he joined the department.
"It was just one of those freaky things I'll probably never see again," he said. "I was a paramedic for six years. I just transferred to the Fire Department for all this fun."