June 5, 1999 | Fight Fire
Susan was on a conference call and I was diddling on my computer when the bitter aroma of burning plastic began to fill the office. She was strolling around the room holding the phone when I suddenly heard her exclaim "I have to call you back, there's a car on fire in front of the house!" Sure enough, a sedan parked on the street past our little yard was belching huge clouds of black smoke from under the hood and beneath the car. It was very exciting, in that way that crisis can be.
I called 911 and started downstairs to see if there might be anyone inside the vehicle. I have no idea what I might have done had I found someone inside. On the ambulance, I'm drilled that I must never place myself in jeopardy when assisting someone else -- my first priority is to insure that no additional victims (i.e. me) make a bad situation worse. But we often confound stupidity and heroism. Had there been a human being in the car, the sensible thing would be to obey my training and wait for the fire department. If I leapt into the vehicle, things could go two ways. I could be toasted into a me-shaped charcoal briquette, and people would have shook their heads at how I ignored my training and common sense and it got me killed. Or, I could have pulled someone out alive and people would have lauded my willingness to sacrifice my personal safety for the sake of another person. I might have been called a hero, when I might just as easily have been called stupid.
The world will never know, because I found no one in the car, and I could hear the approaching sirens before I even made it to the ground floor. From the window there, I could see that little blobs of flaming goo were streaming out of the bottom of the engine and burning on the street. A fire engine arrived and hoses unfurled over the pavement like a spider unpacking from a nap. The firefighters began to pry open the hood of the car, and recoiled as a gush of smoke and heat blew out at them. While one hosed down the car, several others began applying all sorts of violence to the vehicle in attempts to get the hood off. One firefighter took a few solid whacks at it with an ax, then tore into it with what looked like an industrial-size Garden WeaselĘ, then a crowbar, then finally a large pair of metal cutters. Finally they succeeded in removing the hood and hosing down the engine directly, sending out a fresh billow of steam that nearly obscured the whole scene. I snapped a few photos for posterity.
Before the smoke had died down, the owner of the car had arrived. She stood on the sidewalk nearby watching the ruckus and understandably looking stunned and defeated. Her car was a fuming wreck. She watched as the firefighters continued hosing down the blackened engine. The hood, still attached, sported huge ax-gashes and a crumpled-beer-can finish. I strolled over to ask if there was anything I could do to help, and she said she'd already called someone.
The fire engine, now packing up its hoses and putting away its automotive destruction equipment, wasn't a regular DC engine. It was from a Virginia suburb, and I realized that it was covering for a DC fire crew that was off at the firefighter's funeral.
Two Washington firefighters were killed last week in a housefire, when the room in which they stood was engulfed in a flashover. Two others in the room survived, although one is still in critical condition. One funeral was yesterday, the other today. The newspaper accounts were heartbreaking: the fire engine with the fallen firefighter's casket alongside his charred helmet and boots wended through the city, past saluting grade school kids, the whirling lights of emergency vehicles from throughout the area, and arching fountains sent up by firefighting boats on the Anacostia River. A picture showed the DC fire chief accompanying the widow and son into the church for the funeral.
Before all of this went down, I was perusing the notices of upcoming classes at the rescue squad, and came across "Essentials of Firefighting." I thought: hmmmmm. I would need to recertify as an EMT before I could take the firefighting class, so it's not something I can do in the next few months. I might be of too skinny a stature to satisfy their requirements, and I might not be willing to grow the requisite mustache. Still, I can't deny that I'm somewhat interested. Susan, to whom I confessed this interest after the deaths, was not overwhelmed with positive feelings. The line between stupidity and heroism is a dim glimmer in a dark room, a flicker of searing fire or a comforting nightlight. Approaching it for a better look might be the best or worst thing you've ever done. You might find that they're hardly different at all. You might discover that your trusty nightlight is really a fire -- just a single flame now, but dense and waiting to consume the room in which you sleep.
I decided to shelf the idea until a day when things seemed a little clearer. Today where the car stood there's just a smudge in the street and a few bits of crisped former car parts. I picked up one of the little blackened and twisted blobs, but it wasn't anything I could identify. Fire changes things in this way.