"I want to talk to my wife," Donald Herbert said out of the blue Saturday. Staff members of the nursing home where he has lived for more than seven years raced to get Linda Herbert on the telephone.
"The word of the day was 'amazing,'" Herbert's uncle, Simon Manka, said.
It was the first of many conversations Herbert, who will turn 44 Saturday, had with his wife, four sons and other family and friends during a 14-hour stretch, Manka said.
"He did recognize several family members and friends, and did call them by name," 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. After going without air for six minutes, Herbert was comatose for 2 1/2 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 and with little awareness of his surroundings.
Manka declined to discuss his nephew's current condition, or whether the apparent progress was continuing. The family was seeking privacy while doctors evaluated Herbert, he said.
As word of Herbert's progress spread, a steady stream of visitors arrived at the Father Baker Manor nursing home in this Buffalo suburb.
"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 a local television station.
Herbert's sons were 14, 13, 11 and 3 when he was injured.