The tones came in as they would any other: “House fire,
xxx East xxx Street for Engine 7, Engine 10, Truck 6, Truck 10, Rescue 1, Battalion 1, Battalion 8, Air 8″, and we loaded up on the rig, ready to roll to an unknown; these kinds of calls happen with a regularity that doesn’t usually add up to too much.
Then came the follow up from Dispatch: “Units enroute, report of heavy fire and smoke showing, report of one occupant trapped in the kitchen.” Whoa. This jumps it up a notch. Chatter in the cab settles down, and my senses go into some weird hyper-vigilance mode, my caffeinated hands relaxing into a looser grip on the steering wheel and the wail of the siren taking on a more urgent tone as it gets worked over, imploring those around us to get out of the way, get out of the way now, this shit is real, and not just another false alarm. The Lieutenant goes over assignments on the headsets, and I see a dense column of black smoke off to our west, confirming that this is indeed a worker. It looks heavy, really heavy and our hands will no doubt be full. Our rookie in the back is beside himself with anticipation, for this is his very first working house fire, months of academy work and mundane station chores, all of which he happily does without question, and it adds up to this moment. I turn back for a quick second and grin at the look on his face through his mask, eyes as wide as dinner plates, and I remember, fondly, that dump of adrenaline that would accompany me almost overwhelmingly as a rookie each time we made a working fire. Now, nearly fifteen years and countless fires later, my eyes don’t explode out of their sockets at the thought of a being inside a house on fire, and I’m likely to think more about just doing my job safely enough that we can all, as a company, come home to a plate of now-cold lunches and some more cock-and-bull stories to swap around the table.
“Engine 10, upon arrival, come up and prepare for fire attack with the crew of Engine 7”…..and so our assignment is made, and we now have purpose. The cacophony of the scene is intensifying as neighbors, other fire units, police units and other random chaos erupts. The boys all pile out of my Engine, and I hurry up and get all of that gear on, fast as I can; despite the years, I still want to be in on the action, I miss the intensity of being in there, where you’re asking to dance with an unknown partner, a potentially lethal but always thrilling partner. I catch up at the last second, air pack delivering that cool stream across my face, comforting me in its embrace of safety in the most dangerous of conditions. We enter in as a crew, as a family; for it is truly and only here that those bonds that we forge around the firehouse can be tested and reinforced. There is no greater test of your reliance and willing soul than to enter here, to rely unconditionally upon your brothers or sisters to keep you safe, to never leave your side when it all comes crashing down, to drag you out of 1900 square feet of burning house, to be drug by you out of the same place.
SO the four of us, crouched, wander into the dense heat of smoke and flames and are immediately rendered blind; the Lieutenant has the thermal imaging camera, so he can see and steer us, while we use our other senses to guide us through the maze of dilapidated trash and mess. We stumble and feel, the rookie on the nozzle, way too eager to open it up at nothing in particular; he knows better, but instinct is hard to overcome. The senior fireman is guiding him as well, and won’t let him fail. I’m in back, exhaustively yanking bulky firehose around corners and then sweeping, searching for anyone on the ground. We muddle and yell and drag through, a coordinated and unholy mess trying to find the seat of the fire and the victim all while blind and hot. We get wrapped around a stairwell, trying like hell to force this effort upstairs towards more heat, towards that which is melting everything around us. Over the muffled tones of our now soaked radios we hear that the Rescue has located the victim in the kitchen, but that doesn’t mean much inasmuch as there could be others upstairs. If they are, there’s not much chance for them, honestly. It’s way too hot to survive up here without protection. Our masks are fogged over, ruining what little vision we were beginning to get. I hear them reach the fire as I’m doing what’s crassly known as “humpin’ hose” around corners and I can immediately see steam conversion happening and rolling down the stairs. I grin behind the mask, knowing that my rookie is finally in his element, as are we all. THIS is why we’re here, THIS is why I signed up so many years ago. I feel the comforting surge of adrenaline pour over me, and I’m more calm than I have been in months.
Other crews are making their way up here now, the Truckies begin to tear into the walls, and I remember fondly my years as a Truck-guy; in my heart, I’ll always be a Truckie, but now is not that time. I’ve embraced the role of the Engine, the nozzle heads, the hose-humpers, those jockeys of the big yellow ambulance (a reference to all the medical calls the Engine makes….the majority of our business). I like these guys, too. We continue to dump thousands of gallons of water into the attic space, chasing fire in the unseen regions, but it’s starting to clear up. I search other bedrooms upstairs, frantically tearing through the kids rooms, just to appease my mind that no one is there.
Our air bottles drained of all they have to offer, we tiredly trudge back outside, covered in insulation and debris. A few minutes in rehab, fresh air bottles and they order us back in for another round of stomping around a burned out hull of a house, the body of the occupant who didn’t make it left precisely in place, because this is an unusual thing, and when unusual things happen, there are protocols for the unusual. We need to exercise as much due diligence as possible, for police officers and fire marshals will soon swarm possessively, trying to reconstruct just what the hell lead up to this tragic situation. Now is the part of the job that holds little appeal, adrenaline come and gone, and heavy lifting and methodical deconstruction in full swing. Fire still exists in pockets, it’s still hot, and there’s a corpse keeping an odd vigil over how we’re treating his house, and it must be done respectfully. And so we labor, swearing, sweating and tearing into the ghosts of this fire, piecing together what we can, salvaging what we may.
And I realize, again, just why it is I do what I do. Surrounded by fire, death and chaos, I’ve never felt calmer. It’s the quiet that scares me. I can handle everything going on around me, because I’ve spent a career training for it, witnessing it, living it. And it makes sense to me. I want to help. I want to feel the charge that comes with helping those that need us, those who reach out in their worst moments. I’m making, or trying to make, sense out of the new paths and directions my life is taking these days. And it is confusing, and scary as hell, and no one seems to have an answer that soothes my chaotic soul. I know not what to do but to follow my heart, towards the glow and heat and chaos.
So I trudge forward, as though towards a house that rages with fire, knowing only that the unknown awaits.