It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday in April 1973, and my first-day tour on the job, when that seminal alarm sounds.
The disembodied voice of the dispatcher booms from loudspeakers throughout the firehouse, “Attention the following units…Engines 83, 60, 41-1 Ladders 29, 17-2 Battalion 14…Respond to…”
The box number and address are given, and then the dispatcher adds, “We are receiving numerous phone calls about a fire on the fourth floor of a five story multiple dwelling reporting people trapped. Be advised, you are responding in to a working fire in an occupied multiple dwelling.”
Our rig is roaring down the street playing “fire music”—the combined sounds of diesel engine, air horn and siren. The old timer sitting across from me starts buckling his coat and pulling up his boots. He says, “Do you smell that… we got us a job, kid.” Moments later, we turn onto the block. He is right. Neighborhood residents pack the street, watching in horror as the terrified occupants of the flaming building swarm down the fire escape, fleeing the eruption of this urban volcano.
The engine pulls up to the front of the building, as we un-ass the rig, grab our tools, and run towards the fire, I realize all my senses are under attack. Sight, sound, and smell are already approaching overload. Additionally, I can taste the primal dread of fire in the back of my throat and a cold fear is clutching my guts. I’m scared! Everyone in that building is running away and we’re going inside, no fucking way!
There are times in life when decisions must be made. These decisions define who you are and shape what you will become. Now was one of my times. Balls calling brains, you are hereby relieved of command; I’m taking over now. And here was my decision, I will fucking die right here and right now before I let these guys down!
The Lieutenant leads the forcible entry man and me to the rear of the building. Back here, the drop ladder has not been lowered and as a result, the fire escape is crammed with people unable to reach the ground.
I follow the boss’s order to lower the drop ladder, and in moments enough people have climbed down off the escape that there is room for us to advance upward.
Between the second and third floors, we encounter a man carrying a console TV. He looks me right in the eyes and says, “Hey fireman grab my kid,” and with a twist of his head indicates a young child maybe 10 years old following behind him.
I look to the Lieutenant for guidance and he says, “Keep moving.” As we reach the fourth floor, the window of the apartment on fire slides upward, releasing a thick, rolling mass of dirty brown smoke. From inside the lethal cloud emerges an unconscious teenaged girl cradled in the arms of the Truckie from L-29 who found her during his search.
He hands her out to the Lieutenant and me as he climbs out of the apartment and onto the fire escape. Holding her limp form between us, I think how peaceful and pretty she looks despite the soot and snot that surrounds her nose and mouth.
Unexpectedly a cascade of broken glass showers down on, us and half a heartbeat later, a Halligan Tool drops from the sky. It smashes into and bounces off the forehead of our young victim producing a large profusely bleeding gash. She ain’t pretty any more.
So many horrific events are occurring so rapidly that my mind screams “enough”. I am on the verge of uselessness.
The Lieutenant hands the girl off to our forcible entry man and the truckie who found her and grabs a handful of my coat, pulling me so close to him that I can see the fillings in his teeth. “Go,” he bellows.
Instantly, I am snapped out of my trance. I follow him as he pushes past me and climbs up the fire escape to the top floor.
Ladder 29’s “above the fire team” is searching the top floor apartment directly above the fire, which is the most dangerous assignment there is in an occupation filled with dangerous assignments. One team member reached the fire escape window only to find a padlocked gate across it preventing his exit.
Unable to escape the apartment or open the window, and with nothing to breath but smoke, he took out the glass by shoving his Halligan through it just as he was overcome by smoke inhalation. That solved the mystery of the flying Halligan. Arriving at the top floor we see a gloved hand sticking out of the apartment through the gate and the hole poked in the glass. In the excitement, I had left my hook on the floor below, so without a tool to use the Lieutenant grabs the gloved hand, pushes it back into the apartment, and starts kicking the remainder of the glass from the window. I catch on quickly, and together we kick in the gate and pull out the fireman.
At this point, time seemingly stopped. I remember nothing more of the fire or the rest of the tour. This was a phenomenon that repeated itself several times during my career. Somewhere there are about three hours missing from my life.
The next morning reporting in for work I am anxious about the reception awaiting me, just how badly did I fuck up? Approaching the house watch booth, who’s sitting there but the old timer with the good sense of smell. He’s smiling. Is it a smile of acceptance or that of a shark about to have lunch? I am more scared now than I was on that fire escape yesterday afternoon, when my trail by fire took place.
Last night around the firehouse kitchen table, I was tried in “absentia” and a verdict had been reached. In our world justice is swift. Have I been forever marked as a useless piece of shit, or oh god please, have I been accepted into this brotherhood of “Nobles Oblige”?
He speaks, “Way to go kid, ya had ya cherry popped first day, welcome aboard.”