After the fire I'm standing
in the ruin of someone's bedroom, with mattresses and a dresser still
smoldering faintly and the walls scorched to absolute darkness. The carpet,
soaked by the hoses, squelches under my boots. There is debris everywhere,
both from the fire and our efforts to search the apartment for occupants
and extinguish the fire in the utter blackout of oily smoke. Every surface
is coated in wet cinders.
I see what looks like a wallet
on top of the dresser, and for a moment I have the urge to pick it up
and look for an ID inside. I want to know whose apartment this was, because
I know there will be a terrible moment here sometime soon when they enter
their home and see the extent of the destruction. I feel sorry for them,
but I have no face to associate with my sympathy and it is extremely unlikely
I will ever be here again.
Before I enter the fire, we've
responded to the box alarm we're gearing up in the back of the squad on
the way to this call. The last high rise box was nothing too significant,
maybe food burning on a stove, and I didn't even make it to the "fire"
before it was put out. Still, my stomach is a little tight and I'm making
sure my gear is on perfectly.
In the back of the rescue squad
we use headphones with attached microphones to communicate; it's the only
way to talk to each other over the noise of the siren. I tear my headset
off for a moment to pull on my fire-resistant hood. It always seems like
someone tries to say something to me on the intercom while I'm putting
on my hood, and when I don't answer they think I'm goofing off in the
back. I'm so paranoid about this that I can probably get my hood on as
fast as any firefighter in the county.
"What're you taking?"
the officer asks me a moment after I have the headphones back on.
"Um, the can and the irons,"
I say without thinking. I have just volunteered to carry the two heaviest
tools. The can is a large fire extinguisher that must weigh 30-40 pounds.
The irons are a set comprised of an ax, Halligan bar, and a small metal
tool that can be used to pull off a lock. They're used mostly in forcible
entry. Both are essential tools for a high rise fire, but it's going to
be a long slog up carrying both.
The squad pulls up near the
first due engine and truck, and we all pile out and start grabbing equipment.
I also take a large flashlight on a loop over my shoulder. A few residents
are milling around in the parking lot, and from fifty feet outside the
building I can already hear the fire alarm going off. The three of us
head into the building. The alarm is deafening as we pass through the
boarding the elevator when a radio report comes from the first team in:
heavy smoke on the eighth floor. There is a sudden shimmer, a tightening
of the space in the elevator, as if our gear suddenly made us too large
for this confinement. "All right," says one of the lieutenants,
"this is the real deal." We get off two floors below the fire
floor and head up the stairs. Some of the building's residents are still
evacuating, anxiously flowing down the staircase, and we squeeze past
them on our way up (I know, it's a widely circulated image of disaster,
but I can't do anything about that).
On the fire floor there's a
thick, pungent haze. We run down the hall to find the engine company crouched
at the door to the apartment where the fire is burning. I am already gasping
as if I'd sprinted up the steps. We pause for a feverish moment at the
door to pull on masks and switch to SCBA. The engine company has the standpipe
pack set up and charges the line; there is a whoosh as the water fills
the hose running through the hallway. We're on our hands and knees. I
have the ax in one hand. I turn on my flashlight. There could be someone
in there. I can't even begin to classify the many emotions I'm experiencing
right now but it doesn't really matter. The door opens and it is nothing
but wall of impenetrable black smoke. And we crawl in.