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Firefighters rescue Elmont woman who uses wheelchair

From left, 2nd Assistant Chief Michael Capoziello, Firefighter

From left, 2nd Assistant Chief Michael Capoziello, Firefighter Asmar Jones and Lt. Kevin Brown successfully rescued an Elmont woman from her burning home Thursday. (Dec. 17, 2009) Credit: Joseph C. Sperber

When fire broke out in her Elmont home Thursday morning, Rita Derry confronted not only smoke and flames.

Derry, 49, who has multiple sclerosis, uses a wheelchair. And firefighters' efforts to enter the split-level house were hampered by piles of clothes, comforters and boxes inside the front door.

But Derry's calls for help guided three firefighters to her smoke-filled bedroom, where they found her and carried her outside to safety, fire officials said.

Oxygen was administered and she was taken to Franklin Hospital Medical Center, where she was treated for smoke inhalation and remained in the emergency room late Thursday.

Fire and police officials said the fire, reported at 7:45 a.m., started in the room of Derry's son Kevin, which is next to hers. He had gone to work and apparently left a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray, police said.

Second Assistant Chief Mike Capoziello was first on the scene on M Street, off Mecham Avenue, after receiving a call that people were trapped in the home.

"There was smoke showing," he said. "I went in through the back door and I could hear her yelling. . . . The smoke was heavy. I had to crawl on my knees."

Department volunteers Asmar Jones and Kevin Brown cleared away piles of clothes and boxes blocking the front entrance. The three converged outside Derry's room, on the lower level.

"Stay calm - we'll get you out," Capoziello said he told her.

Jones, 32, a probationary member of the Elmont Fire Department who is also a New York City firefighter, said he lives a couple of blocks away and, when his pager went off, had to make a split-second decision: whether to go to the firehouse or straight to the scene. He said because his firefighting gear was in his car, he opted to head for the fire.

He typically would enter through the front door, search for the fire and clear a path for firefighters to enter with a hose. But "there was a whole bunch of rubbish in the way and I was trying to fight my way downstairs," he said. "It was pitch black, smoke was coming up from downstairs . . ."

"Thank God she was conscious," he said. "She is a very strong lady; she never stopped yelling. It made the rescue easy."

Jones said in his experience in South Queens with the FDNY, he's seen fires where "people don't make it. It's definitely a blessing when we get one out and she's still breathing."

The fire was reported by Kevin Derry's grandmother, who lived in an upstairs bedroom, police and fire officials said. She escaped uninjured, police said.

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