Some fresh work.

Now there's something you don't see on every run.

As my helmet cleared the front of my face and plopped onto my noggin, I could make out a figure frantically waving his arms like spastic semaphore in the middle of the street. Between the intermittent strobe of the lights and the irregular air horn blasts, I could barely make out "OVER THERE! IT'S OVER THERE!" as I popped the engine's door open and hopped out.

It was 1:30 a.m. Little did I know that I wouldn't be back in the firehouse until almost five hours later.

—————
 

The squad guys were already hightailing it up the walkway of a three-story garden-style apartment building, the furthest one back in a horseshoe layout. Trailing by only seconds—delayed by our need to bring a hoseline—the lineman and I shortly found ourselves in their wake, each with a shoulderful of 1-1/2". My bottle smacked against my lower back as I ran; this particular address was so close to the firehouse that I didn't have a chance to secure the waist belt properly, and it flailed awkwardly like a short, heavy tail. I didn't notice it for too long, though, because I could see the large bay windows of the stairwell starting to fill with smoke as the rescue company began forcing doors.

"3B" appeared in front of my face quickly, despite the three flights of stairs. We were actually riding heavy that night, so there was a fifth man on the engine who was helping to back up the lineman and flake out the hose properly. I found a quick respite in kneeling down to mask up, so I decided that I'd finally connect my waist belt (there was no way I could have known, however, that this was going to cause hilarity. More on that later.)

A good layout man is usually too concerned with working his ass off outside the apartment or structure to be inside having a good time. That fun is reserved for the officer and the lineman, who are too busy with other stuff to worry about having enough line. This is where I came in, and tonight was no exception. Thankfully, due to the extra man on the engine, four hands were doing the job of two, and I was eventually able to make it all the way to the apartment door with one small loop of hose on hand, should my guys need it.

Chris turned around in the smoke ahead of me, and mustered enough volume to come through his facepiece loud and clear:

"DO NOT LET ANYONE THROUGH THAT DOOR."

I gave him a thumbs-up and hunkered myself in the doorway. It wasn't that wide of an opening, anyways; pack-rat conditions in the apartment only allowed the door to about three-quarters of fully open. Giving a quick glance behind me (all clear!), I leaned my way into the apartment and tore into the pile of debris behind the door. Even if someone had already looked back there, I figured it couldn't hurt.

Phew, no bodies—back to the doorway.

Another quick look behind me now revealed a bunch of third-due guys sitting idly, performing the rough firefighting equivalent of thumb-twiddling. They knew that most of my firehouse was already in the apartment, knocking the fire and tearing down ceilings. A few half-assed "…come on, man, get outta the way!" shouts came from behind me, but I stayed firm, and tossed back a cheery "Yeah, yeah, we got it. Don't worry about it." We didn't need to go bringing even more of our shit into a tiny apartment full of someone else's shit. I held fast.

What felt like mere seconds later, I felt a sensation I haven't experienced since this fire, the big 'un I had while I was in probation at Engine 26.* I lurched backwards as if pulled by a big invisible rope attached to my spine.

Aw, dammit. I know what's about to happen.

I made a last-ditch attempt to grab the inside of the doorway and hold on for dear life, but no dice. As I was pulled from the doorway, I saw the shadow of a big MF'r (that's a technical term) behind me. He had me by my SCBA cylinder; grabbing the shoulder straps up top, and the valve assembly on bottom. I was now about as useful as a turtle picked up by my shell. I couldn't hold onto the hoseline, because I'd pull it backwards from my guys inside; my sole plan of action was to follow along as I went up, over, and back down about two feet from where I was (writer's note: thank you for not throwing me down the stairs). I scrambled to regain my post, but by then it was too late; the floodgates had opened; the castle walls were breached; the apartment began to fill with bodies.

After a little while, the fire was knocked, and companies started to go home. Unfortunately, that fire turned out to be a fatal; there was an elderly woman inside the apartment who was unable to make it out before she succumbed to smoke inhalation. A few companies stayed on-scene, performing overhaul and waiting until ATF, our own fire investigators, and the Medical Examiner had completed their work. The sun was coming up as we undertook our last task: to bring the body out. Six firefighters (myself included) squeezed themselves down the three flights of stairs, wrestling with a six-handled black nylon bag. Three awkward turns and a few pinched fingers later, we set the bag on the ME's wheeled cot and trudged back to the apparatus.

Our gear smelled great—we did not. Everyone's relief had arrived by the time we backed into the firehouse, but their envy was returned only by glassy stares of sleeplessness.

I drove home shirtless, not particularly eager to rub my sweat-soaked t-shirt all over my wife's new car. The sun was really up now, and I dug for my sunglasses with one hand while I snapped the radio on with the other. Strains of Creedence Clearwater Revival filled V St SE as I pulled into the beaming sunlight.

"…you say that you'll be mine, baby, all the time… Susie Q…"

—————

Re-reading it now, I can't believe I left the "useless turtle" moment out of the Engine 26 story linked above. However belated it may be: thanks to some big sonofabitch riding on Rescue 2 that day. Ya bastard.

Let this story mark my return from a good, much-needed hiatus. It felt nice to just drop off the grid for a while, see some family, and take some time for myself. Sorry there wasn't any notice, but yes, I'm alive, and back in the game.

—RL

 

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Alex Capece

Washington, D.C. Firefighter and Paramedic

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