The Capitol Police force has some new heroes after officers responded to a fire in the Third Street tunnel on Monday.
Dozens of Capitol Police officers were at the scene, and three landed in the hospital suffering from smoke inhalation after rushing into the tunnel to shepherd nearly 40 people to safety when an unoccupied school bus caught fire.
K9 Officer Andrew Maybo and Special Agent Bomb Technician Michael Weight were at the right place at the right time: They were driving nearby when they saw the flames from the bus, which was being towed through the tunnel. Sgt. Tarik Johnson of the Patrol Division was at headquarters when he heard the news come over the radio system, and he ran out to the scene.
The fire shut down traffic in the area for more than two hours Monday morning and early afternoon as firefighters tried to control the blaze, the cause of which has not been determined. The Metropolitan Police Department, which shares jurisdiction with the Capitol Police over the area near the Capitol, also worked to maintain order.
The biggest problem, though, was how to get people out of the tunnel who were stuck in their vehicles behind the bus — which eventually exploded — especially as the area filled with smoke so thick that, as Maybo described it, “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”
“You couldn’t see the lights on the police cruisers,” Weight added.
In an interview with Roll Call on Tuesday, Maybo and Weight described working in near darkness and shouting in no particular direction when they couldn’t see each other. They instructed people to leave their cars and feel their way along the sides of the tunnel to safety.
“But if everybody jumped out of their cars, there would be no way to get the fire trucks to the bus,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “So we ordered everyone on the scene to put their keys in their vehicles so we could move them out of the way.”
One woman was so panicked that she locked her keys in the car along with her baby in the back seat.
“I had to break the window to get the child out of the car seat,” Maybo said.
“There was one woman whose child had asthma,” Johnson said. “It was very scary.”
All three officers were released from George Washington University Hospital on Monday evening after being treated for smoke inhalation, which caused bouts of light-headedness, chest pain and tightening, coughing and vomiting. Johnson took Tuesday off, saying he was feeling “99 percent better.” But Maybo and Weight were back on the job.
“We got a little bit of ribbing for not staying home to rest,” Maybo said with a laugh.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.