Washington DC

DC Firefighter Burned in Explosion Gives Award to Comrade Who Saved His Life

"I could feel the heat from 100 feet away through the windshield and I saw him standing there"

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A D.C. firefighter who was caught in an explosion that burned most of his face is back on the job, and on Thursday, he presented the D.C. Fire and EMS' Medal of Valor to the firefighter who saved his life.

D.C. firefighter technician Richard Cunningham and Sgt. Matthew Westerbeck responded to a car fire last year along with their team from Engine 8.

Cunningham was still in the fire truck when Westerbeck began to walk toward the car. Then, he saw the car explode.

"I could feel the heat from 100 feet away through the windshield and I saw him standing there," Cunningham said. "We had never seen anything like this before."

The explosion produced a massive fireball that engulfed Westerbeck.

"I’m not gonna outrun that from 18 feet away. I managed to close my eyes and hold my breath and move," Westerbeck said. "I disappeared completely into the flame. He could not see me."

"I was surrounded by good people and I’m here today because of who I was surrounded by," Westerbeck said.

The fire severely burned most of Westerbeck's face, the only part of his body not protected by heavy gear. Westerbeck underwent a long recovery.

The burns didn't just affect him, but also his young family.

"My daughter was born three weeks after this happened. So, my wife was 8 months pregnant when this went down and God bless her. She was a saint through it all," Westerbeck said.

But it was his son who had the toughest reaction to his injuries.

"When we got home he looked at me like I was a monster and that was tough," Westerbeck said. "I sat down next to him and he said, 'Dad, will you go away?' and it broke my heart and I started crying right there."

Soon, however, his son began helping with the daily ritual of washing his dad's skin and monitoring the healing process.

In a video he shared with News4, his son tells him "everything's good" and hugs him.

Westerbeck returned to duty 103 days after the fire.

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