ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – A firefighter brain-damaged in a 1995 roof collapse had an "amazing" weekend, recognizing and speaking with his four sons and other family and friends for the first time in years, a family spokesman said Monday.
"I want to talk to my wife," Donald Herbert (search) said out of the blue Saturday at the skilled nursing facility where he has lived for more than seven years. Staff members put Linda Herbert on the telephone.
It was the first of many conversations he had during a 14-hour stretch, Herbert's uncle, Simon Manka said.
"How long have I been away?" Herbert asked.
"We told him almost 10 years," the uncle said. "He thought it was only three months."
Herbert was fighting a house fire Dec. 29, 1995, when the roof collapsed, burying him under debris. He was 37. After going without air for several minutes, Herbert was comatose for 2½ months and has undergone therapy ever since.
News accounts in the days and years after his injury describe Herbert as blind and with little, if any, memory. Video shows him receiving physical therapy but apparently unable to communicate.
Manka declined to discuss his nephew's current condition, or whether the apparent progress was continuing Monday. The family was seeking privacy while doctors evaluated Herbert, he said.
"He's resting comfortably," the uncle said.
As word of Herbert's progress spread, a steady stream of visitors arrived at the Father Baker Manor (search) in this Buffalo suburb, many of whom deferred to the family when asked about Herbert.
"He stayed up 'til early morning talking with his boys and catching up on what they've been doing over the last several years," firefighter Anthony Liberatore told WIVB-TV.
Herbert's sons were 17, 16, 14 and 7 when he was injured.
Staff members at the nursing facility recognized the change in Herbert, Manka said, when they heard him speaking and "making specific requests."
"The word of the day was `amazing,"' he said.
Dr. Rose Lynn Sherr of New York University Medical Center (search) said when patients recover from brain injuries, they usually do so within two or three years.
"It's almost unheard of after 10 years," she said, "but sometimes things do happen and people suddenly improve and we don't understand why."
Manka said visitors let Herbert set the pace of the conversations and did not bring up the fire in which he was injured.
"The extent and duration of his recovery is not known at this time," Manka said. "However we can tell you he did recognize several family members and friends and did call them by name."