Story-time Saturday: Fire and Lightning

     "They're all ugly, Will," Tom said in a muted voice as they pulled up to what was quickly becoming a multi-alarm fire. "But this one's got potential."
      "Zip it and move it. We've got the west side, find me a hydrant and run a line. Stephen, get a sitrep from the Chief on-scene," Will shouted over the noise of the gathering crowd and other engines.
      As they all piled out of the cab, Stephen felt his stomach sink. Tom was right, this one was bad. A nine-story apartment complex had gone up, and it was threatening two other buildings nearby. Luckily it was a narrow building, no more than one or two apartments per floor. Even yards away, the heat wash was already turning his face red.
      "What's the situation?" Stephen called over the roar of the flames as he approached a burly, gray-haired man barking orders.
      "Chief Davidson," the fireman introduced himself. "We've evac'd the other two buildings, but we're not completely sure about this one," the Chief explained, gesturing to the blaze. "We think it started on the second or third floor, and it's already spread to the third and fourth. We need to contain this before it gets worse."
      "Down!" came a call. Stephen grabbed Chief Davidson and yanked him down, instinctively protecting the older man. There was a loud WUMP as the second story windows blew out suddenly, a fresh blast of heat washing over the firemen as glass shards flew through the air.
      The other fireman looked at Stephen in shock, "How did...?" he seemed unable to finish as Stephen brushed glass shards from his jacket.
      “What?” Stephen asked, unsure what the Chief was trying to ask. He paused, but shrugged an explanation off for later, saying instead, "Keep us informed. We've got the west, right?"
      The Chief nodded numbly, then shook his head and turned to yell something to the men on the hose behind him.
      Stephen turned back to his truck when he felt a tug on his sleeve. Two other firemen were standing beside him. The first was a wiry fellow, his helmet canted at what could almost be considered a jaunty angle, if it hadn’t been completely against safety regulations. Rivulets of sweat parted around a hawk-like nose before meeting a wide mouth that had so many laugh lines etched around it, Stephen doubted the man ever stopped smiling. His eyes were almost dancing in their sockets; Stephen thought they looked red, but was sure it was just reflected firelight. 
      The other man was huge, like pro-wrestler, toss-you-like-a-ragdoll-huge. Stephen felt his neck crane back instinctively, only to find a neatly-trimmed, but no less fierce, make-a-lumberjack-jealous-beard. As the big man looked down at Stephen, he could see bright blue eyes beneath long hair tucked neatly into his helmet. “The name’s Gale. This is Rusty. We’ve got a problem, son,” he said. Stephen wasn’t even surprised when the voice that emerged was like thunder on the plains, a rolling bass that he could almost feel.
      Stephen didn’t think he looked much younger than these strangers, but was not about to argue. “What’s up?”
      “Mother just ran up, hysterical,” replied Rusty, emphasizing the word to sound like a cartoonish ‘hi-sterical’. “Seems she left her two boys on the sixth floor, and no one’s seen ‘em. We could use some…help. Feel like dancin' in the flames today?” Stephen swore he could see the excitement manifest in Rusty’s eyes.
      Stephen looked between the two men. Both were waiting expectantly. He didn’t see an obvious engine patch on their uniforms, and he was certain he’d have heard of someone as crazy as Rusty appeared to be. Word gets around about guys like him, especially since the ones like him didn’t last long. Usually because they went a little too far, waiting just a second too long to get out when the fire got hungry.
      “I’m in, let me grab my gear,” Stephen said, making a snap decision. If there’s even a chance there’s kids in there, I don’t dare leave them, he thought as he quickly outfitted himself with the necessary gear. The rest of his engine crew was busy manning the hose that Tom had managed to find a hydrant for. There’s no time to grab an extra pair of hands. The three of us will have to do.
      Stephen turned back to the building engulfed in fire, nodded to the now well-protected duo and the three of them sprinted into the inferno, ignoring the startled yells of their fellow firemen.

      Stephen focused on not hyperventilating. The last thing I need is to get dizzy. The fire hadn't quite engulfed the ground floor. The big man tapped him on the shoulder, and Stephen followed his finger to the stairwell door, and together the three of them raced to it and began their ascent. Thank you, whoever built this place to code, Stephen thought. There was smoke pouring in to the stairwell, but the concrete walls and steps had little for the flames to catch on. Quickly, the men raced up the stairs, the smoke growing thicker in the narrow stairwell until Stephen was forced to put his helmet right up against the door of the sixth floor to be able to see that they had found the right floor. 
      He felt the handle, and the door, but there was little heat yet. Plenty of smoke from the fifth floor, and he felt a vibration through the soles of his boots as another floor's windows blew out. We're running out of time. If the smoke hasn't already got to the kids, it will soon. Stephen forced himself not to dwell on failure.
      Pushing open the door, the sixth floor was eerily calm from their vantage point. The short hallway to the two apartments was free of flame, but the smoke from the stairwell and lower floors was quickly filling the air. He looked between the two apartments, both with featureless doors. The right one first, I think. He met Gale's eyes and pointed to the right doorway, and the big man nodded agreement. He reached for the door, but it was locked. Stephen found himself pushed aside as Gale reared back with what looked to be a hatchet, his massive hand almost enveloping the handle completely. Stephen blinked, looking a second time. There was no blade, just a simple hammer, and then the instrument came down with a blur, and a resounding crash echoed through the building. Please, please don't collapse, let me just get the kids out... he prayed silently.
      The three men ducked into the apartment, tripping over cheap plastic toys almost immediately. Bingo! Now, where's are they? He looked around the room, but there was no sign of the boys. Stephen and Rusty crossed to the far door while Gale took the one closest to the entrance.
      The older boy was huddled in the corner with his younger brother held tight. They were both coughing heavily, but seemed to be okay. He made 'come here' gestures and the two boys rose to their feet. He quickly wrapped the younger boy in a towel and the supplemental oxygen mask over his face. He knelt in front of the older boy, "Take this so you can breathe." Stephen reflexively held his breath as he passed the boy his own mask. The boy held the mask up to his face and looked up at Stephen, eerily quiet and waiting for instruction. Stephen looked back at Rusty at the apartment's entrance, who gestured for the three to follow him.
      "Let's go big man, time to get out. I'll keep you safe, okay?" Stephen said to the older boy.
      The boy nodded mutely as they made their way out into the main room where Gale was waiting with his not-hatchet.
      "We need to get out of this building, and quickly," Gale said. "The bottom floor is almost gone, and if it fails..." He didn't need to finish. Stephen nodded and gestured for Gale to lead the way, but the other man deferred to Rusty, who offered a quick bow before taking the lead. Stephen sighed, holding the larger boy by the hand, and trying to keep the younger from squirming free. Yep, he’s definitely out of his mind. The stairwell was almost completely black with smoke, and there was flickering light visible in the smoke below.
      Great, the fire's almost in the stairwell. This is gonna be hot, Stephen thought. The group made their way down the stairs quickly, Rusty somehow leading them safely past the burning floors. The fire had consumed the fourth and fifth floors while they were busy, and the second and third floor doors were blown open by the earlier explosions. The ground floor was a complete wall of flame. Stephen huddled back against the stair wall, trying to block the heat from the boys with his body. Rusty stood stock still, eyeing the flames like he could will them to stop. Or grow higher, Stephen thought with a shudder.
      Stephen felt the smoke clogging his lungs. I don't have long. "What now?" he yelled to Gale through a coughing fit. I think we could use a miracle right about now, he thought desperately.
      Gale turned to him, and Stephen swore he could see the big man smile behind the mask. Gale held out his hand, palm down and gestured to the corner they were huddled in. Down! Stephen could almost hear the same cry from earlier echo in his mind as he ducked his head and shielded the boys as best he could. A boom so loud that Stephen feared the building was coming down around them roared through the stairwell. Belatedly realizing he wasn’t dead, Stephan noticed the clatter of broken mortar filled his ears past the roar of flames. He turned to look, and saw the concrete wall opposite their hiding place had collapsed, leaving a large hole. Daylight showed through the smoke.
      But fresh air will feed those flames. nownowNowNOW Stephen mentally screamed as adrenaline flooded his system. He picked up the six-year-old without effort and sprinted towards daylight, a wordless yell tearing his smoke-seared throat.

      "Hey, Steve-O, you alive?"
      He felt a tap on his cheek, and a hard pressure around his mouth. Oxygen mask, the still-thinking part of his brain said. "Yeah, still here," he croaked.
      "Oh good, you're not dead. That means I can kill you for going in alone, you idiot! What the hell were you thinking?" Will growled.
      Stephen's eyes fluttered open in surprise, "A-alone?"
      Will sat next to him, the ambulance doors open at his feet. "Yes, alone! I'm gonna have you cleaning the engine with a damned toothbrush for a month for that stunt...." he trailed off, his anger fading into uncertainty. "How'd you know about the kids? They're fine thanks to you, by the way. The building's a total loss, and no one was hurt. But..." Will trailed off, then seemed to find the words," but the mom got back after you ran in. We didn't dare send anyone else in, and the ladder truck was still a couple minutes out. So how did you know?"
      "Where's Gale, and Rusty? They’re the ones who told me about the kids. We went in together."
      "Who? Stephen, I watched you run in alone. Are you okay?" concern flickered in Will's eyes.
      "Um...yeah,” Stephen replied, replaying the scene in his mind. Did I hallucinate? A thought occurred to him, “Say, how'd that wall collapse? The one I came through?" His throat closed itself off in agony despite the sweet oxygen from the mask, and he devolved into another coughing fit.
      Once Stephen's spasm had passed, Will stared at the far wall of the ambulance. His voice hushed in disbelief, he answered, "Damnedest thing. A freak storm rolled in right after you disappeared and kept the fire under control for us. Then lightning hit the building, caused a crack all the way down that outer stairwell, and for some reason the mortar just...fell apart, right where it needed to."


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