I would like to take the chance to wish everyone Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. In the spirit of the season, I’m giving an early glance into my latest work – Montana Rural, it’s the sequel to Cemetery Street. James, the narrator has moved on with his life and has become a firefighter. The following scene involves a structure fire, it is intense and may disturb sensitive readers. It is dedicated to those who risk their lives everyday to protect ours.
Montana Rural – Sneak Preview
The pulsing chirp of the pager pierced my sleep. I groan, thinking: East side call, please, let it be an East side call. I don’t want to get up. Through the fog of sleep, I reached for the pager. My eyes struggled to read the digital screen: Structure Response. People trapped, screams heard, 102357 Saunders Rd. 1058,1059, 1081, 1047, 1032, 1017, Med1, Lifeflight… 100 Milwaukee Ave.
I sit up in bed, swimming in the confusion of interrupted sleep. Pager in hand, I reread the page as the tones roll through the station. Their pitch conspired with confused thoughts, adrenaline, fear and a racing heart in a sleep expelling cocktail. The dispatcher’s words sound garbled as she rattles off unit numbers. Fuck, holy fuck, I think her words find clarity. “People trapped – screams heard.” I find my feet and stumble across the bedroom. Dizzy, I pause and grab the door frame. Shannie’s image fills my mind. I take a deep breath and will the image from my mind.
“It’s the real deal!” Chris Joshua’s voice booms.
I pound on Jess’s door. “Real deal, let’s go!” The last vestiges of sleep are gone as I lurch through the kitchen and TV room into the ready room.
Chris is already in his bunkers and is throwing on his turnout coat. “You know where we’re going?” he asks. His tone the same as his ‘bullshit’ speech when I was a newbie.
“Across the river from South Frontage West,” I mumble stepping into my bunkers.
He grins. “Just like training James… just like training.”
Jess races into the ready room. Chris steadies him with a fatherly touch and tells him to take a deep breath. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” he reminds the fledgling. To me: “James, don’t forget a radio.” Chris opens the door to the truck bay. Florescent light flickers to life.
I grab a radio and stow it in my turnouts. Jess and I exchange looks before I step into the truck bay and walk around the back of the heavy-rescue. Pausing before the opened driver’s door, I take a deep breath and turn on ‘58’s battery. The battery’s buzzer and the cab’s must greet me as I climb into the driver’s seat. Robotically I buckle my seat belt, hit the garage door opener and start the ignition. The sounds of the bay-door clanking up its track, the rattle of the diesel engine, the ABS alarm and ping of the radio coming alive bring comfort. My eyes follow the beam of the headlights as Jess and Chris climb into the cab. When Chris reaches for ‘58’s radio, I slip into gear. The heavy-rescue lurches forward.
“911 – 1058, fire one,” Chris says into the mouthpiece.
“1058,” The dispatcher replies.
“1058 in route, Saunders Road.”
“1058 in route at 0353.”
Chris flips over to the tactical channel and calls 1058 in route, three onboard.
911 comes up: “1058, be advised we’ve received numerous calls, flames showing, neighbor report shouting inside structure.”
“1058 copies.” Chris replaces the radio’s mic, exhales and sits back. A heavy silence befalls the cab. The rattle of the accelerating engine serves as a metronome to our thoughts. To my left, the river ripples in moonlight, bleeding from the circular slashes of our red lights.
At the end of River-view, we turn and pass under the freeway. In quick succession 1047, 1011, and 1017 come up on the radio. Experience tells me this is the information Chris was waiting for. 1081 and 1032’s response would depend on volunteer availability and will. 1059 was being covered by a volunteer and should be in route momentarily. Radio chatter accompanies us down the freeway’s entrance ramp. Chris flips on the siren. I’d prefer he’d didn’t, but it’s a necessary evil, a way to hold the public’s hand, to let them know help is coming.
A mile down the freeway Chris breaks his silence. Leaning forward, he looks at me: “James, if there’s any sign of survivability, we’re breaking two in – two out.” He wags a finger in rhythm with his words. “If I remember right, there’s no obstructions around the driveway. We should be good, we should be good. If it’s clear, we’re not going to lay a supply line. When we get there, pull a line. Rookie, run the pump and light the scene – and hope we don’t call a mayday.” He exhales and sits back. “They’re going to be out or we’ll have a multiple roast.”
I focus on my breathing as I battle for control of my emotions. I’m glad it was Joshua’s shift, I couldn’t imagine facing this dragon with only a newbie’s help.
The radio chatters: 1001 comes up followed shortly by 1059, both calling themselves in route.
Atop of the exit ramp, we’re greeted by an orange glow reflecting from the mountain side; heavy smoke is pluming. My throat tightens. We only have five-hundred gallons of water – probably not enough to attack the seat of the fire. The implications frighten me. A lump builds in my throat.
“There better not be a fucking train,” Chris says.
I think of Shannie – her hand, the blue tarp, her shattered car, It wouldn’t be the first time a train would cost a life. I was glad to have something to fret about; something to distract my imagination’s view of the scene. I press harder against the accelerator. We scream past dozing houses.
As we cross the river, my eyes are glued to the crossing gates at the far end of the bridge. I imagine the lights springing to life and the gates lowering. I hold my breath, calculating where we need to be to beat an approaching train. I exhale when I realize we’d win the race to the crossing.
Below us, the shadow of the smoke plume swims across the moonlit river. On the bench above, flickering orange light illuminates the forest. We rumble across the railroad tracks and climb a small grade. At the intersection, we make a right and approach the scene. I roll down the window and hear the fire crackle and pop. The smell of burning lumber and plastic permeates the cab as the fire’s glow pursues darkness through the trees.
I slow as we approach, our eyes focused upon the burning home. Behind a smattering of conifers, a ranch-style house stands fifty-odd yards from the road, the fire engulfing its right-rear quadrant. The windows are darkened, indicating heavy interior smoke. As we pull into the driveway, a man is spraying water from a garden hose. In the middle of the driveway is an idling four-wheeler. “We might have a fighting chance,” Chris says as he picks up the radio’s handset. “911 – 1058’s on scene, we have a working fire.”
As I park the engine, the man drops the hose and runs towards us. “They’re inside, you gotta do something, they’re trapped!”
“How many?” Chris asks as I set the brake and flip on the PTO.
“Three of them, you gotta do something! I tried to get inside! I tried!”
I jump from the cab and open the B.A. compartment. Chris’s voice comes over my handheld radio as I B.A. up: “1058 on scene, we have a working fire – one story wood frame construction – people reported trapped. Will be executing a primary search on Alpha/Bravo, next arriving unit assume command.”
I take a deep breath as I clip my mask to my turnouts. I try to will myself to stop shaking.
“Don’t worry about PPV. We don’t have time,” Chris says as he pulls the haligan/axe combo from the back of the engine. “I’ll meet you at the front door,” he says flipping on his B.A. He grabs the TIC and begins his walk around.
From the rear of the engine the generator kicks on and the scene lights power up. I pull the cross lay and trail inch and a half hose behind me. Smoke is pushing through the eaves, and crevasses of the windows and doorframe. After setting the nozzle at the door, I run back and flake the line. The crash of glass comes from the back of the house.
When I return to the nozzle I get on the radio: “1058 charge the line.”
I stow my radio and tuck the line between my arm and torso. I brace myself as the line snakes alive. There’s more breaking glass as the water rushes to the nozzle. I flush the line and find my nozzle setting and close the bail. With a deep breath, I set the line down and mask up. The sound of breaking glass grows closer. Trembling, I lean against the house and wait for Chris Joshua to join me.
The front of the house is flooded with light. I turn. Jess is scrambling across the hosebed. I watch him train a second light.
Chris approaches, mouth running: “Looks like there’s three bedrooms on Alpha/Bravo/Charlie… We’re going for the closest bedroom. It’s self-venting on Charlie/Delta. Inside knock down anything rolling or that’ll cut our egress.”
I nod. I watch Chris pull off his helmet and mask up. After a long second, I remember I’m not on air. Pulling off a glove, I slip my regulator into my mask and take a deep breath. I feel myself grin, that first breath always makes me feel like Darth Vader.
“You ready,” Chris Joshua’s muffled voice asks.
I nod again. He slaps my shoulder.
“Give’m hell James.”
Chris tries the door. It’s not locked. He shoves it open and we throw our backs against the wall outside the doorframe. Black smoke billows over our heads. Chris counts to ten before yelling: “Go!” I gain the threshold on my knees, dragging the line. Fire is climbing the Delta wall and burning contents in the living room. Flames are rolling across the ceiling. I open the bail at the ceiling. Water forces itself through the heat, hits the ceiling and showers over the rooms contents. I move deeper into the room. The heat bleeds through my turnouts. The beam from my flashlight fights to cut the smoke. I lower the stream and attack the burning contents and the far wall. The room quickly darkens. I feel a tap on my left shoulder. I move left.
I blindly follow Chris Joshua’s lead until I feel a tug from the hose. I tap Chris’s shoulder. Pausing, I scan the ceiling for rolling flames. I can hear Chris’s heavy breathing as he humps more line into the house.
He taps my left shoulder when he’s finished. Backing on my knees, I keep my feet in contact with Chris’s as he leads us further into darkness. The fire again starts to roll across the ceiling. I open the bail and knock the flames down. Doing so disrupts the thermal layering and buys us more time. I hear radio traffic. It’s muffled and I can’t make it out.
Chris grabs my shoulders and yells into my ear. “’58’s at a half a tank.”
I grip the nozzle tighter. We crawl down the hall, I struggle to keep pace. Chris stops. “Door,” he yells.
He throws open the door and peers into the TIC’s viewfinder. “Wait here,” he yells to me. He craws into the room. I turn my attention to the fire. Flames are again rolling across the ceiling. I adjust my haunches before I open the bail, the line kicks as pressurized water rushes towards the flame. Chris yells something. I shut down the line and peer into the room. His helmet mounted flashlight bobs with his movement. Chris looks in my direction, his light nods at me.
I open the bail a last time. After a few seconds, I lay the line of the floor and craw into the room. Chris is pulling a child from under the bed. I lose control of my breathing as he moves towards the broken-out window. I follow and climb out the window before him, landing on the ground with a thud. I struggle to regain control of my breathing; I’m sucking down the air. Concentrate, I tell myself. My lungs fill with air… I hold it a second and make a long exhale. I take a second deep breath… I again lose control and start hyperventilating.
The kid’s head pops out the window, a little girl, maybe six –seven, listless,
I watch Chris Joshua’s gloved hands grip her flannel as his arms extend through wisps of smoke pushing through the window. Automatically, my arms extend; I don’t feel her weight as he hands her to me.
I turn and run towards the heavy-rescue… from the corner of my eye, I see Chris stumble from the window. As I round the corner, Jess is standing back to the pump panel, watching the house. I’m halfway to the rescue when he notices me. A holy-fuck expression explodes across his face. “Grab the jump kit,” I yell through my mask. “Jump kit!” He doesn’t move. He can’t hear my garbled voice over the pump.
Suddenly, Jess takes off around the front of the engine and meets me on the passenger side of the rig. “Jump kit,” I repeat. Soot covers the girl’s face; I can’t tell if she’s breathing. “Come on, come on,” I say setting the girl on the ground. The jump kit lands next to her. I tear off my gloves and rip the open the green bag. “O2 O2,” I tell the rookie through my mask. I feel for a carotid pulse. It’s faint… I place my hand on her chest. I think I feel it rise, She has respirations… Jess rips open a non-rebreather.
My low-air alarm begins to whistle. Ignoring it, I focus on vomit and drool pooling in the girl’s mouth. Airway, gotta get an airway. I see my hands turn the girl to her side. “We’re gonna have to bag her!” I mumble through my mask. Jess later told me he didn’t hear a word I said. The whistle of my low-air alarm grows louder.
Chris Joshua’s voice cuts through the night, amplified by the radio. I hear the words, snatch, alive, ALS.
More vomit, the girl is aspirating. We can’t get a good airway. My hands shake as I reach for a nasal-pharyngeal airway. I watch myself insert the trumpeted tube into her nose. Even in EMT class the process made me wretch; the idea of sending a tube up a nose gives me the willies. I had a hard time on a dummy, now it’s for real. From above I watch my hand twist the airway so the flanged end doesn’t pierce her nasal cavity and puncture the brain. More vomit, I watch my finger scoops chunks from the girl’s mouth. Once the tube is in, Jess secures the non-rebreather.
I feel for her carotid pulse, it’s shallow. I can’t tell if her chest is rising. It was rising, now I’m not sure. We’re gonna have to bag her… “Ambu bag…” I cry through my mask To Jess my words sound like “Am… uuu . .. ggg”
A confused look holds his gaze. “AMM UUU GGGG” I yell through my mask.
My low-air alarm grows louder. “Fuuuu k nnnn AMM Uu ggg!” I scream
Jess points at my mask and says: “Take your mask off!” For a moment I’m confused and frustrated. Fuck it, I’ll get it myself. I reach over the girl and tear through the jump kit, my hands furiously searching for the Ambu bag. After a couple of seconds I find it and rip it from its plastic seal.
We gotta bag her, I hear myself think… the words exit my mouth but I’m still unaware my speech is garbled. The whistle grows even louder.
I watch my hand rip the non-rebreather from the girl’s face and fit the bag’s mask over her nose and mouth. I connect the O2 line to the bag and start squeezing, forcing oxygen into the girl’s airway.
I feel a slap across the side of my helmet. What the fuck? I think looking up. Chris Joshua, out of his mask tells me: “Let Jess bag her – get off air.”
For a second, my tunnel vision breaks. I rip my helmet and mask off. Cool nighttime air fills my lungs. The crackling of the burning house pierces the din of the heavy-rescue’s engine, pump and generator. I hear distant sirens before falling back into the tunnel.
I feel for the girl’s pulse… barely there. Vomit pools under the mask. I pull the mask up and swipe her mouth. “Come on, come on,” I plead.
Joshua kneels next to me, rips the girls pajama’s off and applies fast patches to her chest. We turn our attention to the AED’s monitor: the girl’s life is a predominantly flat line with an intermittent squiggle on the screen.
“Clear… “ Joshua says. “I’m clear, you’re clear, we’re all clear.” An electronic voice says analyzing, no shock advised, continue CPR… Joshua places a hand on the girl’s chest, feeling for a heartbeat. “James, compressions,” He voice commands.
I look at him… I felt a pulse… “She has a heartbeat!” I insist.
“Compressions,” he repeats.
My palm finds the center of her sternum and I begin.
Chris keys up his radio: “Incoming units, Joshua, be advised CPR is in progress.”
Life became a series of three cycles of CPR interrupted by a break to analyze. We worked the girl. When the Ambulance arrived we had delivered two stacks of shocks. “James, take her to ’59,” Joshua orders as he disconnects the fast patches from the AED. The act would save critical minutes. It was a load and go.
As I stand, Chris continues bagging. He lugs the oxygen tank as we run towards the waiting ambulance. Ahead of us, Suzy, the volunteer covering the ambulance, climbs into the back. I’m relieved to see her, it means I’m done with patient care. We pause at the back of ’59, Chris sets the oxygen tank on the floor and I hand off the girl. “Go ahead and drive,” he tells me.
Once he’s inside, I slam the doors and make my way around to the driver’s seat. I slide into the seat and realize I forgot to take off my B.A. “Fuck!” I slide back out and doff the unit. It lands with a crash against the passenger door.
In the back, the conversation is professionally frantic. As I drive off I key up the radio. “911 – 1059 in route to Mercy Code 3”
“1059 in route 0417,” the dispatcher retorts.
Twenty-four minutes… I thought when the radio bristled.
“1059 – 1001, Negative on Mercy, Lifeflight is in route. Rendezvous in Piney Meadows.
“1001 – 1059, copy, rendezvous with Lifeflight in Piney Meadows.” I wince as the words leave my mouth. I’ll hear about that one. The old man hates when anyone uses copy.
At the railroad tracks, I bring the ambulance to a stop as 1011 motors across the one-lane bridge. I nod as they pass. As I accelerate the realization hits me we left two people inside. Bile erupts from my mouth and coats the steering wheel and dashboard. Two people are dead. We didn’t go back for them! My stomach knots; I wretch again.
I tremor in shocked silence. As I drive to the rendezvous point, my mind replays the scene over and over, trying to figure how we could have snatched them, or at least one of them. What fucking good did we do? We made a kid an orphan. She’d be better off dead. I think, my thoughts as bitter as the taste of bile. In the back, I hear Suzy and Chris Joshua fight for the girl’s life.
I back into the town’s parking lot and park the ambulance. The drama happening less than a mile away plays itself out on the radio. On a separate channel Chris Joshua is giving an update to the Lifeflight crew. A decision is made to hot-load the little girl. I fight to hold back tears, I lose the battle. With a deep sigh, I step outside and grab a bottle of water. Sirens fill the night. Numb, I stare aimlessly into the starlit sky.
Minutes later the whop of a helicopter approaches. I wipe my nose and eyes with a sleeve, take a last gulp of water and grab my radio. As the helicopter circles overhead, I open the side door and ask Chris’s preference. Does he want a backboard or are you leaving her on the gurney? Suzy decides the latter. I shut the door, lower my visor and watch Lifeflight land with a swirl of wind, dirt and gravel.
The flight-nurse and paramedic climb out and race for the ambulance. I watch their interaction with Suzy and Chris. Their words fade in and out. Systematically they transfer care, plugging the girl into their equipment. When they’re ready, we unload the girl from 1059 and race her to the helicopter.
“Duck your heads,” the flight nurse cries, reminding everyone of the obvious. I comply as the rotors whoosh ridiculously close to our heads. Their wash is deafening. Chris and I lift her and help guide her aboard and just like that, she’s out of our care; her fate forever unknown, unless an inquiry is made. We wheel the gurney back to the ambulance, pausing to watch the helicopter lift-off.
“You okay,” Chris asks as we load the gurney.
“Yeah, I’m good, how’s the girl?”
“You know how it goes.”