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A/N: This story is dedicated to my niece B, who has been a fan of E! since the day her mother brought home the first season on DVD. One day while watching a fire truck and ambulance race by, lights flashing and sirens blaring, her observation was simply “unknown type rescue”! Happy 13th birthday, B!! - ubicaritas -
Part One - Present
The Building smouldered in the brilliant mid-day sunshine of the early January day. Although part of its red brick facade remained standing, the interior was completely gutted, charred timbers and blackened window frames a sure sign of the devastation. Streams of water were still pouring into the structure, from crews on the ground and others above in aerial baskets. Hot spots still flared; the fire in the Building had been fierce, and seemed unwilling to yield to the firefighters' efforts. For the remainder of the day, as life in the city carried on around it, the Building slowly, painfully died.
Situated on a busy corner in the old downtown core, the Building was more than one hundred and twenty-five years old. Made of red brick, three stories high, it had a distinctive corner tower and round arched windows that presided over the intersection. Originally constructed by a baker as a place to make and sell his products, during its long life span the Building had also been a hotel, served as home for undertakers and baby-carriage makers, and in its last, most recent identity, had been a popular and successful Thai restaurant.
But the Building had fallen upon hard times. Eight months ago, part of its facade had collapsed, sending crumbled brick to the sidewalk below; the restauranteurs were required to evacuate as the Building was declared structurally unsound. The owners, however, were unfazed, and when two months later the Building was designated a Heritage Site, they began to assemble a complete restoration plan to present to the city.
In the meantime, though, the Building continued to decay. All utilities were cut off, leaving it dark and uninviting both inside and out. A security fence surrounded the perimeter, to protect passers-by from falling bricks; despite this, however, vandalism became a serious problem, and vagrants were known to occupy the Building at times. Local politicians and neighbouring business owners lamented the slow progress towards the restoration, to no avail. A Heritage designation protected the Building from demolition for re-development, but did little to speed the process of rehabilitation, or provide any funding for that work to take place.
And so the Building just languished... until the morning that it burned, and died, and nearly took the lives of two firefighters with it.
Part Two - Five Hours Earlier
In the quiet pre-dawn hours at Station 51, the only sounds to be heard were the occasional rustling of bedcovers and the soft snores of the six men sleeping in the dorm. The calm was abruptly shattered, however, by the sounding of the tones, in a long drawn-out series that seemed to go on for an extended period. By the time the measured voice of dispatcher Sam Lanier was heard announcing a structure fire, the men were already geared up and beginning to move out of the dorm.
Paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto exchanged a worried glance as they scrambled into their turnout pants and boots. “Man, Roy, it sounds like they're calling out half the county!” Johnny exclaimed, leading the way out into the vehicle bay. “That must have been, what, at least three alarms right there!”
“It does sound like a bad one,” Roy agreed, accepting the call slip from a somber-looking Captain Stanley. He handed it off to Johnny, who promptly headed for the big map on the board to confirm the address. Starting the Squad, he waited for Johnny to climb in before speaking again. “Gould Street, isn't that right downtown? Blocks and blocks of old century buildings?”
“Blocks and blocks of old fire traps, you mean,” Johnny retorted. He motioned with his right arm as Roy put the Squad in gear and headed down the ramp, followed closely by Engine 51. Both vehicles had lights on and sirens wailing as they drove away from the Station in the twilight of the approaching dawn. “Hang a right, then a left at the second light,” he directed, then returned to his earlier comment. “There's a bunch of those old buildings that are empty and falling apart, just waiting to burn down! I bet you dollars to donuts that's where we're headed right now, Roy!”
“Could be.” Roy was content to let Johnny talk, knowing it was his method of taking the sudden rush of adrenaline and focussing it on the task at hand. Each man in the crew had his own way of doing this. Johnny talked, barely pausing for a breath; Roy, as driver of the lead vehicle, concentrated on getting them to the scene as quickly and safely as possible. Captain Hank Stanley stared straight out the windshield of the engine, already running through deployment scenarios in his mind. Engineer Mike Stoker became even more silent than usual, smoothly and seemingly effortlessly steering the big rig through the streets behind the Squad. Lineman Marco Lopez closed his eyes and whispered a few quiet prayers; his partner, Lineman Chet Kelly fidgeted in his seat behind his captain, leg bouncing up and down and his head turning back and forth, trying to see where they were going.
They were about half way to the scene when the tones began again, sounding out a fourth alarm response to the downtown fire. Captain Stanley and his Engineer exchanged a glance, which grew even more concerned as the voice of the Battalion Chief came over the airwaves. “All units responding to Gould Street, note that building is derelict and structurally unsound. No personnel are to enter the structure under any circumstances. Repeat, no entry. All units acknowledge.” The captain picked up the microphone and waited for his turn to radio the required response, his mind already amending his earlier plans to take the Chief's directive into account.
As the series of acknowledgements sounded on the radio, Johnny turned to Roy and nodded his head as if to say 'I told you so'. Roy conceded the point with a faint smirk; he had known all along where they were headed, but preferred not to get in the way of Johnny's developing rant. But the teasing left both their faces as they approached their target downtown intersection. Even half a mile away, in the fading darkness they could see the bright orange glow and huge head of dark smoke from the fire.
“Would you look at that,” breathed Johnny, finally finding his voice after a few seconds of stunned silence. “It's a monster...”
“You got that right, Junior.” Roy nodded in agreement. “It sure is.”
Part Three - At The Fire
In the eerie pre-dawn light, the dancing orange glow from the fire and the flashing red strobes on the emergency vehicles created a fantastic kaleidoscope of shape and colour, which played on walls and windows alike in the blocks around the Gould Street intersection. Arriving moments after the fourth alarm sounded, the Squad slowed and came to a halt about half a block away from the fire; a short distance behind, the Engine slid smoothly into place beside a bright yellow hydrant on the sidewalk. Captain Stanley was out of his seat and trotting toward the Battalion Chief even before the big vehicle came to a complete stop. The rest of the crew also dismounted and began to prepare their equipment in anticipation of the deployment orders their leader would return with. Five sets of eyes watched the fire warily as it seemed to swell and grow right in front of them.
“Hank.” Chief McConnikee nodded as the captain of 51 approached.
“Chief.” Stanley returned the greeting. “Looks like a real bad one.”
“That it is, Hank! The only good news is that the building is completely empty, so there's no need to search for victims inside. I'll need all your men on hose teams to start, with the paramedics to be prepared to treat any of our own injuries should they occur.” McConnikee gestured toward one of the buildings immediately beside the fully engaged red brick building. “Take your crew up and over the northern face here, out onto the roof and join 10s and 45s there. Let's get as much water down onto that building as possible, and protect the exposed adjacent structures as well.”
“Right,” Hank nodded briskly as he turned and headed back to where his crew waited. While the captain had been briefed, Mike Stoker had supervised the preparations, connecting the Engine to the hydrant and charging the lines. Fully geared up, hoses at hand, the crew was ready when their leader returned with his instructions.
The captain took in his men's readiness with a quick appreciative glance. “We'll be on the building to the north of the fire,” he began. “Kelly, Lopez, take an inch and a half, up the ladders to the roof. Gage and DeSoto, another inch and a half, go up the external fire escape to the rear and come out on the roof. Now there's a lot of action up there, so each team make sure you've got your handi-talkie, set on channel two.” Hank waited until he received affirmative nods before continuing. “Under no circumstances are we to enter the primary structure; the building was empty and declared structurally unsound months ago.” Hesitating briefly, he added, “It's a bad one, so be careful. Let's go!”
Clapping a farewell hand on Stoker's shoulder, Stanley led the remainder of his crew past the Engine, toward their positions in the battle zone.
“See you up there, Gage!” called Chet, as he and Marco headed in the direction of the ladder truck. “Don't get lost on the way!”
“We'll see who gets lost!” John retorted, grabbing the nozzle of his hose and shrugging it up over his shoulder. “Come on, Roy!” Impatiently he turned around to his partner, who had stepped back to the Squad for a moment.
Roy reappeared seconds later, slinging their green medical bag over his arm and air tanks. “Right behind you, Johnny!” he replied, tugging on his gloves and picking up the hose. “Thought we'd better be prepared for anything when we get up to the roof.” Johnny nodded his approval, and the two paramedics-turned-linemen trotted around the side of the building, found the metal fire escape, and began their steady climb.
On the roof the scene was one of barely controlled chaos. This building was one storey taller than the burning structure on its south side, providing a considerable advantage to the crews fighting the fire. Streams of water could be aimed directly down into the flames, or across the width of the roof below in a curtain effect. Hank Stanley's practised eye took in all these details as he clambered from the ladder on to the roof; stepping carefully, he climbed over the many crisscrossed hoses, making his way to the centre of the roof where the other captains were gathered.
“Simmons, Peterson.” Hank greeted his counterparts with a terse nod. “I've got two line teams coming up; where are they best deployed to fit in with your guys?”
“Glad you could join us!” Pete Simmons, the 'A' shift captain from Station 10 replied. “Put one line at the far corner, to help keep containment at the rear of the building. Your second line can join the force in the central area.” He moved closer to the edge of the roof, indicating that Hank should follow. “Part of the roof towards the rear has already opened up, even though the third floor isn't fully involved yet. Let's use that gap to our advantage.”
“Got it,” Hank agreed. As his crew scrambled up on to the roof moments later he was ready for them. “John, Roy, take the rear corner of the building. Work on containing the spread into the back alley.” He swung his hand to the far edge of the roof, watching as they acknowledged his instructions with a wave. Hank then gestured for Chet and Marco to join the row of firefighters aiming their streams of water straight down into the inferno below.
For a time there was total concentration on the battle. The three captains moved up and down the row, directing individual line teams, and reporting the progress back to the Battalion Chief. The roar of the fire was making communication difficult; the heat and roiling black smoke were fast becoming an oppressive wall against which the firefighters were having little effect.
One of the linemen near the centre of the roof suddenly wavered, then collapsed to his knees; his partner on the hose barely managed to shut off the flow to avoid losing control. He waved Captain Simmons over, and together they half-carried the woozy lineman away from the edge. Hank Stanley, seeing the commotion, quickly trotted to where his paramedics were manning their hose. Putting a hand on Roy DeSoto's shoulder, he shouted, “We've got a man down! You see to it, I'll take your place here on the line!”
“Right, Cap!” Roy replied, immediately letting go of the hose and turning to leave. “I'll let you know if I need Johnny!” Hank waved his acknowledgement, moving quickly into position behind John and picking up the hose.
Johnny was peripherally aware of the movement behind him, and turned to get look at what was happening. Seeing his captain now on the line, he shifted his position slightly to allow the older man to assume a better grip and stance with which to control the hose. As he moved, however, his air tank brushed against the low retaining wall at the rim of the roof. Unable to withstand the additional pressure, the flimsy rail atop the wall gave way, causing Johnny to lose his balance and fall backwards towards the edge. In a seeming slow-motion chain of events, Hank dropped the hose and reached towards the flailing arms of his crewman. Both men's momentum, however, was too strong; Johnny tumbled backwards over the wall, followed by Hank a couple of seconds later. They disappeared over the edge into the smoke and flames below.
O o O o O
The Building roared; it embraced the fire that was consuming it, giving the flames free reign throughout its structure. Polished hardwood floors, intricate framing and moulding, utilitarian drywall, all were devoured by the raging inferno. As everything burned, the Building released great clouds of billowing black smoke. Upwards they flowed, spilling out its upper windows and rolling around its own roof and those of the neighbouring structures.
The swarm of firefighters was no match for the fury of the fire and smoke; the spray of water from the hoses at ground level and the rooftops did little to check the power of the blaze. The Building, although aware of their efforts, felt no effects from the pouring water; it heaved and trembled and continued to burn in the growing morning light.
In the midst of the chaos the Building sensed a sudden uproar from the crews of firefighters; at the same time it became aware of a new presence within itself, in its upper level where the flames had not yet taken full hold. Curious, the Building turned its attention away from the fire and onto the rear area of its third floor, where a new, epic struggle was beginning to take place.
Part Four - The Rescue, part 1
Of all the personnel fighting the fire, it might have been Mike Stoker who was first aware of the possibility of trouble on the roof. Whether it was the slight twitch of the pressure display dial, or the tiny pulse of one of the hoses connected to the Engine, Mike couldn't say for certain; all he knew was that something had triggered his sixth sense, sounding internal alarm bells in his mind. Even as he raised his right hand to manipulate the Engine's controls, dialling the pressure back slightly in the suspect hose, Mike was reaching into his turnout pocket with the other, pulling out his handi-talkie.
“Engine 51 to HT Stanley.” The Engineer's voice was calm and steady as he continued to watch the dials on the panel in front of him closely. “HT Stanley, respond.”
While the radio in Mike's hand remained silent, there was a sudden burst of noise from the main radio speakers on the Engine and all the surrounding vehicles. Peripherally he became aware of a scramble of activity near the Command Post. The Battalion Chief called out a flurry of orders, and suddenly there were more firefighters running for the ladders and external fire escapes to the neighbouring buildings. When Chief McConnikee set down his microphone and moved purposefully toward Engine 51, Mike knew his instincts had been correct; something involving his crewmates on the roof had gone very wrong. Grimly he continued to watch the control panels, a dozen scenarios running through his mind as he awaited the arrival of the Chief.
O o O o O
On the roof of the building to the north of the fire, the disappearance of the two men over the edge had been noticed almost immediately. The hose they had been manning twitched and slid around the corner where they had been standing, spraying water about the feet of the other firefighters and alerting them to the problem. One of the linemen quickly grabbed the nozzle and shut off the flow; looking around and seeing the broken railing, he realized what had happened and began shouting for his captain.
Captain Doug Peterson had been a firefighter for more than half his life, and he had seen his fair share of downtown structure fires; it had long been his opinion that the older heritage buildings were among the most dangerous places to fight a fire. This early-morning blaze was proving to be just such the case, as the crews were dealing with both an unsound structure and the dense clouds of smoke that the older building materials were producing. So when he heard one of his linemen shouting the alarm that two of their own had possibly gone over the side into the very teeth of the fire, he felt his gut clench in real fear. Hurrying to the back corner of the roof, doing a head count and reading names on turnout coats along the way, he realized with horror who it was that was missing.
“Pete!” he hollered at Captain Simmons, who was back toward the middle of the roof with his injured lineman. “Get McConnikee on the radio! Tell him two men are over the edge onto the structure. It's Stanley and Gage from 51s!” Approaching the damaged railing, Peterson carefully leaned over, hoping he would be able to see where the two had fallen; instead, he was greeted by a fresh surge of black smoke from below. Motioning to the line crews in the vicinity, he pointed down into the smoke. “Get some water down onto that corner!” he ordered. “Wide dispersal, keep it moving! If they're still alive down there, let's try to keep the fire pushed back away from them as long as we can!”
Back behind the line of hoses, Roy DeSoto jerked his head up in alarm as he heard the shout from Captain Peterson. “Johnny?” he questioned. “It's Johnny that's missing?”
Beside him, kneeling by the lineman being treated for mild heat exhaustion, Captain Simmons nodded. “And your captain too! Peterson's looking for them now.” He stood, grabbing his radio as he did so. “Stay here with my man, DeSoto! We'll get them, I promise!” Moving away from a frustrated and worried Roy, he made the call down to the Battalion Chief on the ground, adding, “We need more manpower and more hoses up here right away, Chief! The fire's broken through the roof near the centre of the structure, so I'd expect the whole of the top floor to be engaged within a few minutes!”
“Roger that,” came the reply. “They're on the way up now. Do you have visual contact with Stanley or Gage at this time?”
Simmons looked over at his fellow captain, who shook his head slowly. “Negative! But even with the hoses on the area, the smoke is too thick even to see the roof in most places, Chief.”
The radio stayed quiet for a few moments; on the roof the only sound was the rush of water from the hoses as they trained their streams down onto the top of the burning Building, and the shouted instructions from Captain Peterson as he directed the newly-arriving hose teams into position at the edge. Then abruptly the call came from the Chief down below: “We've made contact!”
O o O o O
John Gage's return to awareness brought with it the sensation that he was choking. As he became more alert, he realized that his air mask was broken, shattered in fact, and that he was breathing smoke and coughing heavily. Johnny pulled off the damaged mask, wincing as the heavy rubber and plastic scraped past a tender spot at his temple. For a moment he concentrated solely on getting his breathing under control, forcing himself to take slow, shallow breaths; gradually, his coughing eased and Johnny was able to push himself up, rather gingerly, into a sitting position. Pain flared immediately in his right side, from hip to ankle, but he didn't think anything felt broken. Landing on his side after a fifteen foot drop would probably produce some spectacular bruises, but overall Johnny felt reasonably hopeful that he had escaped serious injury. He hoped Captain Stanley had fared as well...
Cap! The last thing Johnny remembered was the railing breaking behind him at the roof's edge, and the sudden awful feeling of falling into nothingness; his last sight had been that of his captain lunging after him, and tumbling off the roof right after him. The paramedic looked frantically around, trying to catch a glimpse of where Captain Stanley might have landed. He fumbled in his turnout pocket for a flashlight, needing all the help he could get in the dark swirling smoke.
“Cap!” he called, beginning to cough again in the toxic atmosphere. “Cap, are you okay?”
Johnny heard the shout just off to his left. Struggling to get his bearings, he again raised his voice in a hoarse call, and was gratified when the reply came back more quickly the second time. A moment later, the captain himself crawled into view, coming to a stop beside the paramedic and grasping his arm in a relieved greeting.
“Cap!” Johnny exclaimed, his own relief at seeing his captain temporarily displacing the increasing discomfort he found himself in. “Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere?” he demanded, quickly trying to look the older man over even as he saw him shaking his head in the negative.
Hank took a deep breath, then pulled off his air mask and handed it to his coughing paramedic. “I'm fine, John! Here, take some air. Are you all right? And where's your mask, pal?”
“Broken!” Johnny gasped out as he inhaled deeply of the sweet oxygen from the captain's mask. “I think I'm okay, but Cap, we've got to get out of here, fast! I can feel it getting hotter by the minute” He twisted around to look behind him, and his eyes widened in alarm. Through the thick black smoke, he could see tendrils of flame reaching up, just a few feet from where the two of them had landed on the roof!
“Let's go!” Hank didn't need to think twice about it; standing hastily, he grabbed Johnny's arm and pulled him up to his feet, dragging the younger man away from the flames, heading back the way he had come. The two stumbled for a few feet, Hank leading and Johnny limping behind him; the roof felt shaky under their feet and the heat remained intense. Abruptly the captain came to a halt, staggering slightly as Johnny careened into him from behind. “It's the edge, John, we're at the edge of the roof!”
John regained his balance, resting his gloved hands on the roof's low wall. “Maybe there's a way down,” he suggested. “An exterior fire escape, or a ladder.”
Hank nodded; together the two men leaned cautiously over the edge. The sight that greeted them was not encouraging. There was no metal ladder or fire escape on this part of the building; the alleyway behind the building was a long three-storey drop away. Making matters worse, there were already flames climbing out of the windows on the second storey below them, which meant it was only a matter of moments until the level directly underneath became fully involved as well. Slowly they straightened, the captain's eyes seeing and mirroring the concern he saw in the expression on the paramedic's face.
“That's not good,” Johnny observed soberly.
“No.” Hank nodded in agreement. He looked up, suddenly catching a glimpse of an arcing stream of water high above them. “What about the adjoining wall, to the next building? Maybe there's a way up there!”
“Hey, that's right! A ladder, or even a conduit we could climb!” Johnny moved to step away from the wall. He stumbled and felt his right ankle give way; he would have fallen had Hank not reached out quickly and steadied him.
“Gage! Easy there!” Hank eased Johnny into a sitting position against the roof wall. He again passed his air mask to the younger man, holding it to his face until his coughing eased. “What's the problem, pal?” he asked in concern.
“My right ankle... might be broken after all,” Johnny reluctantly admitted.
The worried look on the captain's face intensified. “Right,” he bit out. “This is what's going to happen. Do you still have your handi-talkie?” At Johnny's affirmative nod, he continued, “Call down to the Engine, tell Mike where we are. I'll check this adjoining wall for any way to get back up.” Hank straightened up and put on his mask. “Now don't move! I'll be right back!” With a quick pat on the paramedic's shoulder, he turned and vanished into the smoke.
Johnny watched Hank disappear, then began patting his pockets, trying to remember where the handi-talkie was. Finally locating it, he clicked the squelch twice, paused, and repeated the action; hopefully this would attract Mike Stoker's attention over the noise of the Engine, and alert him to listen for a message. He waited another couple of seconds, then pressed the transmit button and began to speak. “Squad 51 to Engine 51. This is Squad 51 to Engine 51. Mike, are you there?” Johnny choked off the last few words as he began to cough again in the thick smoke.
The handi-talkie crackled in Johnny's hand, and the tinny-sounding voice of Mike Stoker burst out of the speaker. “This is Engine 51. Johnny, is that you? Are you all right? Is Cap with you?” The questions tumbled out one after the other, Mike's tone anxious and concerned.
“Mike, we're okay!” Johnny rasped. “We fell, and landed on the roof of the Building! We're going to need help to get back up to the top level!” Unable to continue, he closed his eyes, continuing to grip the handi-talkie but lowering it down to his side.
Hank cautiously made his way along the wall, looking upward at the adjoining structure. Despite the fact it was now fully light, visibility on the Building roof was almost non-existent. It wasn't long, however, before a solid wall of heat and smoke stopped him; obviously there was no easy escape available this way. He turned back, retracing his steps and carefully feeling his way so as not to lose his bearings.
Arriving back at the corner of the roof, Hank turned to his left and almost immediately found Johnny. The paramedic was still sitting where he had left him, clutching the handi-talkie and struggling to speak. Hank dropped to his knees, pulling the air mask from his face and holding it over Johnny's mouth and nose.
Johnny took a quick couple of puffs of air, then pushed the mask away as he passed the radio to the captain. “Mike's on the other end,” he croaked hoarsely. “Told him... where we were...” He concentrated on breathing as Hank once again pressed the mask into place.
The handi-talkie sputtered into life once again. “This is McConnikee. Gage, Stanley, are you there?”
“Chief, this is Stanley!” Hank was already beginning to feel his lungs protesting the choking smoke. “We're at the back corner of the Building, completely cut off and with no means of escape down to the back alleyway. We need out now! This roof is getting soft and the level below is almost fully involved!”
“Hang in there, Hank!” McConnikee's steady voice came through clearly. “We'll get you up and out of there as soon as we can!”
“Roger that.” Hank responded, settling down beside Johnny. “Just make it quick,” he muttered to himself, eyeing the rolling smoke with growing trepidation.
O o O o O
The Building had always been aware of the life contained within it. Each successive community, from the baker through to the restauranteurs, had moulded the Building in its own image, yet through it all the character of the great red brick structure had remained intact. Through the century of its existence, the Building had unfailingly sheltered those who had chosen to make their home or livelihood within its walls. Now, for a brief moment in the last few hours of its life, there arose a final, noble opportunity for the Building: to protect the two sparks of life that were struggling to survive on its highest point.
By now the heat and flames filled just about every part of the Building; firewalls and fire-resistant construction materials were not a part of its fabric, and the months of emptiness and general disrepair had left behind piles of debris that were pure fuel to the blaze. Yet the Building did maintain a small measure of control over its internal skeleton. While the smoke and fire had broken through the roof in some areas, the rear section of the third storey was not yet burning, and the Building knew this. Flexing its framework back and forth with a deep, rumbling groan, the Building caused some of its exterior brickwork to fall inward into its top floor, creating a wall between the worst of the advancing flames and the relatively clear back corner.
The Building settled back with a heavy, resonating sigh; thick black smoke pulsed out of the broken windows and the breaches in the walls and roof. It cast its senses around one last time, and was pleased that the tiny flickers of life remained intact and vibrant, even against all the force of the fire. With that final job done, the Building returned its full attention to the battle between the water and the flames, and awaited the inevitable, impending conclusion.
Part Five - The Rescue, part 2
To the two men trapped on the burning roof, time seemed to have slowed to a fraction of its usual pace. Forced to share the one breathing apparatus between them, each man was feeling the effects of inhaling too much smoke. Johnny could hardly move his leg; the pain in his ankle had continued to throb and grow with each passing moment. Hank was increasingly frustrated by his lack of success in finding a way out, and was also becoming conscious of his own aches resulting from the fall to the rooftop. Yet despite this, they were aware of the steady, drenching spray of water from the hoses above them, helping to keep the flames at bay and the smoke levels down. Obviously, the rescue efforts were under way from the upper rooftop; all they could do was sit and wait until help materialized.
A sudden rumbling caused them both to start; the roof bucked slightly under them, and John and Hank heard the sound of falling debris as part of the wall close to them seemed to cave in slightly. Bricks from the outer wall tumbled across the gentle slope to slip through the widening holes in the roof, and others crashed in the open third-floor windows on the back of the Building. Wide-eyed, the two firefighters pressed themselves further back into their corner sanctuary, watching with alarm as the Building seemed to shrug again, causing more bricks and other material to settle into the third floor.
They spoke at the same time, each searching for reassurance that the other was all right, as a fresh cloud of smoke and dust swirled around them.
“You okay, pal?” Hank watched for and finally received an affirmative nod from Johnny. He kicked away some of the smaller chunks of debris that had landed near them, fortunately not of a size that could have caused further injury. “That felt like a partial collapse of the levels underneath us, John,” he said. “I don't know how we're still here!”
Johnny nodded again. “Our lucky day,” he croaked, passing the air mask back to the captain.
The radio crackled loudly in Hank's hand. “Stanley! Gage! Are you still there?” The voice of the Battalion Chief, though almost obscured by the noise on the rooftop, was still a welcome sound.
“We're fine, Chief.” Hank raised the handi-talkie with a hand that was shaking only slightly. “What just happened down there?”
“Movement at the rear of the Building,” came the reply. “An internal collapse, and some of the rear facade came down. What's your situation on the roof, Hank?”
“This back corner seems stable for the moment.” Hank peered through the smoke, trying to see how near the flames actually were. “The collapse seems to have slowed the fire's progress a bit, but we're still running out of time here, Chief.” The captain exchanged a glance with Johnny. “How soon can you get us out?”
“We're working on it!” McConnikee's tone was meant to sound reassuring, but even with the barrage of noise Hank could hear the underlying worry. “Peterson is coordinating things on the roof above you. Hang in there, Hank!”
“Ten-four.” Hank slid the radio back into his turnout pocket, and turned back to Johnny. “You still okay there, pal?” he asked in concern, observing and not liking the way the paramedic was slumped against the wall. He held the air mask over John's face, making sure the younger man took several deep breaths before grabbing another one himself.
Johnny gave a quick, tired wave. “I'm doin' okay, Cap,” he replied. Looking up into the swirling smoke, he shook his head in frustration. “How are they going to find us through that?”
“Just hang in there.” Hank found himself echoing McConnikee's words. “They'll get to us in time, don't you worry.” But even as he spoke the reassuring words to Johnny, the captain found himself looking up into the smoke, and whispered to himself, “Hurry up, Doug, or we're not going to make it!”
O o O o O
On the upper rooftop, Roy DeSoto was forced to look on helplessly as Captain Doug Peterson hastily organized the extra manpower that had been sent up by the Battalion Chief. Unable to leave his patient, the paramedic continued his treatment of the injured man, all the while fighting his growing unease that too much time had already passed for his comrades on the burning structure's roof. As he watched the new arrivals scramble to deploy their lines towards the rear of the Building, Roy was startled to feel a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw the familiar features of Bob Belliveau beside him.
“DeSoto.” The burly paramedic greeted Roy. “The Chief sent me up; Brice is on the ground ready to receive casualties.” He tipped his helmet back and peered down. “I'll take over here, you go join the others at the edge. What've we got?”
“Mild heat exhaustion,” Roy replied, scrambling to his feet and grabbing his gloves. “I've already begun cooling measures...”
“Go, I've got him.” Belliveau waved Roy away, already kneeling beside the prone figure.
Roy trotted over to where Captain Peterson was standing behind the line of hoses. As he got there, the captain's handi-talkie burst to life, and Roy heard the Chief's voice announcing that contact had been made with the men on the roof. “Cap?” the paramedic enquired anxiously. “Did he say if they're all right?”
Peterson shook his head. “No,” he replied. As he raised the radio to his lips, however, the roof under their feet shook slightly for a few seconds, and the clatter of falling debris could be heard even over the cacophony of the fire and hoses combined. Fresh black smoke roiled up from the burning Building below them.
Roy's short-lived feeling of relief abruptly fled, and he spun around to look at the edge of the roof with horror. “Johnny!” he called desperately. Turning back to the captain beside him, he forced down his rising panic. “We've got to get them out of there!”
Captain Peterson was already moving towards the edge of the roof, slipping in beside the line teams aiming their hoses over the side. Roy followed closely on his heels, peering into the dark smoke in a vain attempt to see his partner. Watching the older man fumble to put away his handi-talkie suddenly gave the paramedic an idea, and he grabbed Peterson's sleeve to get his attention.
“The radio!” Roy burst out, pointing at the handi-talkie still in the captain's hand. “Cap, they've got a handi-talkie, right?” When Peterson nodded in confirmation, he continued, “Let me call them; let me talk to Johnny. If I can get him to signal us somehow, we can see exactly where they are and drop the lifelines right down to them!”
Doug Peterson slapped the handi-talkie into Roy's outstretched hand. “That's a good idea, DeSoto!” he exclaimed, leading the paramedic back into the corner of the roof. “This is where they went over,” he said, pointing at the broken railing. “And the Chief said that Stanley was able to identify that they were near the back corner of the structure's roof.”
“Then that's where we should start.” Roy cautiously leaned over the shattered wooden slats, raising the radio as he did so. “HT 51 to HT Stanley, HT... oh hell...” The paramedic broke off, shaking his head at the ingrained habits that had him following radio protocol even in this tense situation. Keying the transmit button, he spoke again. “Cap, Johnny, this is Roy. Can you hear me? Please respond!”
The reply from below came with gratifying speed. “Roy, we can hear you!” Captain Stanley's voice was clear even over the background roar of the fire. “We're okay for the moment, but you've got to get us up soon! The roof won't hold for much longer, pal!”
“We'll get you, Cap! Hang on!” Roy lowered the radio, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. Turning to the senior officer beside him, he continued to rein in his concern as he ran through possible solutions in his mind. “You've dropped down lifelines, right? Along the wall?”
Peterson nodded. “Along the wall and thrown a pair out further, too. We pulled those lines up a few minutes later, with the ends burned off from the fire.” The captain shook his head in frustration. “We're shooting blind, trying to get lines down to them through that smoke, DeSoto! We need to know exactly where they are!”
“So how can we see them?” Roy looked back down at the burning rooftop, willing the smoke to clear to the point that the men would be visible. He did a quick mental inventory of the equipment that Johnny likely had with him in addition to the handi-talkie, dismissing his tiny penlight, but then remembering... “They have at least one flashlight!” The paramedic answered his own question, repeating it again so Captain Peterson would hear. “Cap, they've got flashlights, or, at least Johnny should. We always carry them!”
Peterson was already nodding in agreement. “And if they shine them straight up at us...”
“... we should be able to see them!” Roy finished. He raised the radio again, the words tumbling out in his haste. “Cap, Johnny, use your flashlights! Aim them straight up so that we can see the beams!” As he spoke, he motioned to a couple of the firefighters along the wall. “You two, watch over the side! You're looking for light; they're going to try and signal their position.”
For a few moments there was relative silence, as the men concentrated their gaze down into the grey clouds. Then, “Look there!” A shout came from one of the linemen who was stationed at the railing close to the corner, immediately bringing Roy to his side. “I see a light...” He pointed down into the melee beneath them.
The paramedic lifted the handi-talkie and keyed the transmit button. “Cap, this is Roy. We think we've got you sighted, but we need to be sure.” He stared at the pinprick of light shining weakly in the swirling smoke. “Can you turn your light off for five seconds, then back on again?”
“Stand by!” The reply from the roof came after a long, anxious minute, and Roy tried not to imagine how desperate his partner and captain were probably now feeling. As he continued to watch, now joined by Captain Peterson, he was relieved to see the point of light disappear, then reappear seconds later.
“Lifelines!” snapped the captain to the linemen closest to him, but even as they scrambled to get the coiled ropes ready to toss down, the handi-talkie crackled again, and Hank Stanley's voice burst out in a flurry of words.
“Stanley to DeSoto! Roy!”
Roy fumbled with the radio, alarmed at the sudden urgency in his captain's tone. “Go ahead, Cap, I hear you,” he responded.
“Get us up now!” Hank was all but shouting. “The fire has broken through right behind us! We need out right now! Roy!”
“Hang on, Cap!” Roy desperately cast about, looking for something, anything that might be of use. His gaze lit upon a hose which the linemen had shut off and set down in preparation to drop the lifelines Peterson had requested. Grabbing the rope in one hand, he reached out and picked up the hose with the other, quickly looping the lifeline several times around the still fully charged line. “We'll send this down to them!” he exclaimed. “Get another one ready like this, fast! We'll drop them down and they can keep the fire back while they tie themselves off to the lifelines!”
A second hose was prepared while Roy relayed his instructions down to Hank. “We're lowering you a couple of charged hoses, Cap, with lifelines tied around them. That should give you the time you need!” He watched as the pair of canvas lines was slowly fed over the side of the roof, the heavy brass nozzles providing enough weight that the hoses dropped in a relatively straight line, aiming directly at the flashlight beam that was still visible despite the increased gravity of the situation. “Signal us when you're ready,” the paramedic added hastily, and was relieved when Hank responded with a quick double click.
Another long, difficult moment stretched out, then the radio crackled again. “Roy, we're tied on to the hoses! Pull us up, now!” The hoarse shout was all that Roy needed to hear, and he quickly relayed it to Captain Peterson. The senior officer had assembled crews on each of the lowered hoses, ready to haul the lines up at a second's notice. The measured, steady reach-and-heave motion, although made more difficult and awkward by the fact that all the men were wearing full breathing apparatus, still brought the hoses up at a fair pace, and in short order there were many extra hands at the roof's edge, reaching down to grasp the arms and shoulders of the two injured men, easing them up and over the railing onto the safety of the rooftop.
“Johnny! Cap!” Roy was at their side instantly, waiting impatiently as the crews hurried to free them from the tangle of hose and lifeline. “Let's get them back to where my equipment is, okay?” he directed, motioning toward the centre of the roof. The same helping hands gently picked the men up, carrying them away from the smoke and flames and water, and set them down in the relative calm far back from the edge.
Captain Peterson followed along, crouching beside Roy as the paramedic hastily put down the handi-talkie before beginning his assesment of his injured crewmates. “What can I do to help, DeSoto?” he asked, pulling off his gloves and dropping them beside the abandoned radio.
Roy was already reaching for the oxygen tank; he handed a mask to Peterson, then grabbed a second one and eased it over Johnny's mouth and nose. “Put the mask on Cap,” he instructed. “And then loosen his turnout coat; we don't want him to overheat on top of everything else.” He watched as the captain carried out the task, then turned and did the same for Johnny. The gentle hiss of the oxygen flowing was a welcome sound to Roy's ears, and he listened and observed closely as laboured coughing and breathing seemed to ease slightly for both men. “We have to get them down as quickly as possible, Cap,” he said. “And I'll need two stokes, and crews to carry them...”
“You'll need only one stokes, pal.” Hank's voice was weary, raspy from the smoke and muffled by the mask on his face, but his words were clear. The captain struggled to sit up, brushing away Roy's hands when the paramedic tried to keep him lying down. “I'll be fine,” he continued. “How's Gage doing?”
“He's breathing okay,” Roy reported, before frowning sharply at his captain. “You should stay still, Cap, you might have injuries you just can't feel yet.”
Hank shook his head, being careful not to dislodge the oxygen mask as he did so. “I'm fine,” he repeated. “Just a bit sore. But John thought that maybe he had a broken ankle, he couldn't put any pressure on it...” The captain's words broke off as a wave of coughing swept over him; he subsided into silence, but remained upright with only minimal assistance, watching Roy's actions closely.
Roy turned back to his semi-conscious partner, and gently examined both lower legs for signs of injury. When Johnny jumped slightly and groaned at the light touch to his swollen right ankle, the senior paramedic nodded in agreement with his captain's statement. “Looks like you may be right about that, Cap,” he said. “It's not a compound fracture, though, so that's a good sign.” He eased the injured limb back down to the ground, and turned to Captain Peterson. “What's the word on transport down?” he asked.
The captain gestured toward the front face of the rooftop, his retrieved handi-talkie in hand. “The snorkel will be at that edge in less than five minutes, DeSoto,” he reported. “It's already loaded with a stokes and on the way up.”
“You hear that, Johnny?” Roy leaned down and spoke directly to his younger partner. “Your ride off this roof is just about here! We'll get you all fixed up in no time, okay? Just hang in there for a few more minutes.” He watched in relief as Johnny nodded slightly, a faint smile crossing his face in spite of the pain in his ankle.
Moments later, the hydraulic whine of the snorkel announced its arrival at roof level. Roy retrieved the stokes, and was able to get Johnny moved and settled into it with minimal jostling of his injured leg; any further assesment and treatment would have to wait until they were on the ground. Hank climbed awkwardly to his feet, but only needed to lean lightly against his fellow captain for support as they made their way across the roof to the edge where the snorkel bucket waited. Shortly afterward, all members of the group, both the rescuers and rescuees, were aboard, and their descent to the safety of the ground was underway.
O o O o O
The sun had finally risen; the glare of the flashing lights was less visible on the control panel of Engine 51, making the dials and gauges a bit easier to read. Mike Stoker stood beside his Engine, monitoring the hoses and pressure readouts as he had done hundreds of times before. This morning, however, was a much more uncommon circumstance, with the fire not yet contained and his crewmates still missing.
Hearing both men's voices over the handi-talkie had been reassuring to Mike. He had followed the progress of the search and rescue even as he had maintained watch and control over the equipment that was helping in the recovery effort. Then Roy's steady tones had come over the radio; the senior paramedic had been the beacon for the trapped men, helping to pinpoint their location and ultimately leading to their retrieval from the burning rooftop. Constrained by his responsibility at the Engine, Mike had felt both frustration and impatience at his inability to participate directly in the rescue. He did, however, recognize that his contribution allowed the crews on the roof to work with proper support.
A sudden commotion at the rooftop level drew Mike's attention, and he looked up to see the bucket of the snorkel truck nudge up against the neighbouring building. Almost immediately there was a flurry of activity; against the backdrop of roiling grey smoke the engineer watched three men clamber in, followed by the careful lifting of a stokes to sit across the bucket's rails. As the hydraulic whine of the lowering snorkel reached his ears, Mike caught himself actually taking a few steps toward it, before the realization sank in that he couldn't leave his Engine.
“Go. Be with your crew. We've got it covered.”
Mike started slightly at the words. Two other firefighters had materialized beside him, a captain that he didn't recognize and an engineer that he did, a fellow specialist with whom he had attended several training sessions in the past. The men took up positions next to the Engine; the senior officer gave him a supporting clap on the shoulder, while the engineer briskly nudged him out of the way. Even as he watched the other man's hands move up to make a quick adjustment to the controls, Mike was wordlessly nodding his thanks and moving away towards where the snorkel bucket was about to touch down.
“Cap!” Mike looked over in obvious relief as he saw Hank Stanley standing in the basket. Although he was supported by Captain Peterson against the rails, and had an oxygen mask pressed to his face, it was clear that his captain was not seriously injured and was able to move well enough under his own steam. When Hank responded with a quick wave and a reassuring smile that was visible even under the mask, Mike grinned back, then turned his attention to the other man in the snorkel. The familiar figure of Roy DeSoto was leaning over the stokes, and although he looked concerned, he too had a smile on his face as he glanced up.
Roy motioned with his hand, indicating that the engineer should come forward. “Mike, can you take one end of the stokes?” he requested, unclipping the metal stretcher from the basket railings as he spoke. “Oh, and Johnny's okay,” he added, in response to the unspoken question. “Took in some smoke, and probably broke his ankle, but he's going to be all right.”
Mike stepped right up to Roy's side, joining the paramedic in carefully lifting their injured crewmate up and off the snorkel bucket. His level of relief continued to rise as he watched John Gage's eyes blink open at the change in motion, then widen slightly in recognition. “It's good to see you, Johnny,” Mike said, knowing his words sounded inadequate, but pleased nonetheless when he received a faint grin in return.
“Over by the Squad,” Roy directed Mike, and together they walked to where Paramedic Craig Brice was waiting in the designated triage area. Captain Peterson followed closely behind them, measuring his pace to both assist Hank and carry the portable tank which was feeding the masks of both injured men with cool, welcome oxygen. Beside the small red truck stood two ambulances; the first vehicle waited, back doors open and stretcher at hand, in preparation to receive the casualties from Station 51. The second was in the process of being loaded with the injured lineman from the rooftop. Bob Belliveau gave a quick wave as he climbed in beside the stretcher, and the driver moved forward to latch the doors. But something made him pause, mid-step, hesitating slightly with his hand on the frame.
For in that instant, in response to an almost indistinguishable quiver in the air, every man froze in his tracks, and each pair of eyes turned, drawn by a common but involuntary urge to look in one single direction. A hush seemed to fall across the whole site; the air shimmered, and pulsed and crackled in anticipation, until...
With a mighty whoosh, the entire inner structure of the Building collapsed; the roof caved in and the outer walls trembled, as a huge ball of black smoke and orange flame erupted towards the sky. Bricks and glass clattered to the ground, and burning cinders drifted down like hellish snowflakes, landing amongst the assembled fire department vehicles and personnel. Inside the Building, the fire roared anew, blazing through the newly-available combustible material left exposed by the collapse like a living, breathing entity. The firefighters also sprang back to life, crews scrambling to re-train hoses on the flames in response to a series of shouted orders from their captains.
Nestled in the shelter of the Squad, a stunned Hank Stanley and John Gage stared, first at the scene unfolding before them, and then at each other in shock and wonder. The captain was the first to break the silence, pulling the oxygen mask down from his face with a hand that trembled slightly. “Would you look at that,” he murmured, shaking his head slowly.
“That was almost too close,” John whispered in agreement. Lying prone in the stokes as he was, he had had a limited view of the collapse, but the huge plume of black smoke and the distinctive sounds of the renewed battle against the flames left no doubt as to what had happened. “Man, Cap, we almost ... almost ...!” he managed to gasp out, beginning to cough in spite of the mask on his face.
Kneeling between the two men, Roy dragged his attention away from the catastrophe that had almost happened, and frowned at both his partner and his captain. Waving a hand in Hank's direction, he instructed, “Get the mask back on, Cap. You took in a lot of smoke.” With his other hand on Johnny's shoulder, he soothed, “Easy there, Junior, slower breaths. It's all right, you're safe now.” Roy continued to watch closely until he saw the younger man's breathing ease slightly.
“I have Rampart on the biophone, DeSoto.” Craig Brice's mildly impatient tone caused Roy to jump slightly. “They're asking for vitals on both victims...”
“Sure, Brice, let's get them,” Roy responded. “Will you look after Cap? I'll stay here with Johnny.” The other paramedic nodded in agreement, and the two quickly began their treatment of the injured men. Brice assisted Captain Stanley into the ambulance, settling him on the bench and continuing to provide the oxygen support he required. With approval from Rampart, Roy was able to start the required IV and provide his partner with some welcome pain relief prior to splinting his broken ankle.
Mike Stoker simply watched; having been released from his duties at his Engine, and unable to provide much assistance to the busy paramedics, he stood beside the open ambulance door, where he could see and revel in the fact that both his crewmates were alive and in good condition, all things considered. Even the approach of Chief McConnikee, normally an event that had firefighters from raw boots to experienced captains snapping to attention, failed to dislodge Mike's feeling of overall good will and relief. The engineer did straighten automatically, acknowledging the Chief with a nod, but his focus remained on the paramedics' activity around Johnny and Captain Stanley.
“Nice work staying alive!” The Chief's first words, aimed at both Hank and Johnny, drew grins from all the assembled firefighters. When the senior officer continued, however, he spoke directly to Roy, who remained kneeling beside the stokes on the ground. “And DeSoto, good job on the rescue. Your actions brought on the best possible outcome – both men are alive. Well done!” McConnikee clapped a hand on the paramedic's shoulder, then sent a supporting wave in Hank's direction. “We'll check in later at the hospital,” he added, turning and heading back to the Command Post.
Craig Brice leaned out of the ambulance to stare at Roy. “The Chief appears pleased with your performance, DeSoto,” he observed coolly. “Although, from what we were able to hear over the radio, it sounded like not all stardard procedures were followed... nevertheless, it all worked out, this time.” The bespectacled paramedic shook his head slightly, then nodded at Johnny's prone figure. “Is Gage ready for transport?”
Roy climbed to his feet, then reached down and snapped both the biophone and the drug box shut. “Yes, Brice, he's ready to go,” he replied. “And I'll ride in with them, you can follow in your own squad,” he added, trying not to smile at the look of relief that immediately appeared on his captain's face. Moments later, the ambulance was ready for departure. With Hank ensconced on the bench, Johnny's stretcher safely loaded and all the gear stowed, Roy climbed in and sat down. As the driver moved to secure the ambulance, Mike waved him off, stepping forward himself and reaching for the doors; once they were latched, he gave the customary two taps to indicate the vehicle was ready for departure.
Mike watched the ambulance weave its way through the tangle of parked emergency equipment, not taking his eyes off it until it was completely clear of the scene and picking up speed on its way to Rampart. Turning back, he allowed himself a long, steady look at the Building, where the fire was finally beginning to succumb to the efforts of the firefighters. Smoke that had been black just moments before was now fading to grey, giving the structure's ruined skeleton an almost ethereal look as it swirled around the exposed and crumbling front tower. With a quick glance around to ensure nobody was watching, the Engineer sketched a quick salute to the Building, a small acknowledgement of thanks for its role in the safe return of his crewmates. Then, giving his head a quick shake to dispel the moment of whimsy, Mike set off in the direction of his Engine; two of his crew were still fighting the fire, and as long as they remained on the line, he had a job to do.
Part Six - Epilogue
The Building sat silently in the muted mid-day light of the cool, cloudy February day. Although part of its red brick facade remained standing, the interior was completely gutted, charred timbers and blackened window frames a sure sign of the devastation that had occurred several weeks earlier. The fire in the Building had been fierce; only after an extended battle had the blaze finally yielded to the firefighters' efforts. To the two men standing at the perimeter safety fence, looking at the remains of the Building, the memories of that struggle were vivid, as if those events had occurred yesterday instead of weeks in the past.
John Gage and Hank Stanley stood behind the tall chain-link fence which wrapped around the two exposed sides of the corner lot. Both men were dressed in civilian clothing; the 'A' shift at Station 51 was not on duty this day for Hank to command, and John had yet to return to work following the incident that had nearly taken their lives. Leaning on his cane, the paramedic shifted slightly in an attempt to ease the pain in his ankle. The new walking cast was definitely improving his mobility, but any extended period of time on his feet caused the mending bones to ache unforgivingly.
The calm of the morning was abruptly shattered by the rumble and roar of large, industrial diesel engines. Puffs of black exhaust smoke rose into the air from the pair of giant bulldozers that had just been fired into life. Between them, a large excavator vibrated as its engine warmed up, the operator raising and lowering the bucket to test the hydraulics while he waited for the signal to begin. After a few moments had passed, a white-helmeted crew chief raised his hand with a wave, and the work on the corner of Gould Street got underway.
The front facade of the second floor was still standing, the outline of the brick skeleton dark against the low grey cloud. It was the first to fall under the assault of the excavator, the precariously upright wall crumbling quickly with just a few nudges from the heavy shovel bucket. Red and blackened brick tumbled to the ground in a colourful shower, pooling at the base of the Building's remains. Charred wood, fire and water damaged drywall, twisted metal ductwork and piping, all joined the bricks in the growing pile of debris.
The dozers and the excavator worked together in a slow, carefully choreographed dance, alternately piling the debris and pushing it off to the side of the demolition site. The second floor was completely gone, and part of the first as well, when the crew chief again stepped forward to signal a halt to the heavy equipment operators. The men climbed down from their vehicles and made their way to the site trailer.
O o O o O
Hank and John remained by the fence, observing the destruction as it occurred, until at last the tenderness in John's ankle forced the men to retreat to the captain's car, parked across the street from the Building's site. The older man held the door and made certain his paramedic was settled comfortably in the seat before climbing in himself. They continued to watch, however, as the heavy equipment alternately knocked down and cleared away the bricks and other debris; the structure was so weakened that the excavator was easily able to knock the walls over.
The contemplative silence lasted for a while, until at last John looked away from the scene and started to speak. “It's sort of sad, in a way, to see this happen,” he said slowly, trying to find the words to express himself. “This Building deserves better than to be a heap of rubble by the end of the day, Cap.”
Hank blinked in surprise. “I would have thought you'd be glad to see this happen, John,” he replied. “After all, this Building nearly killed both of us a few weeks ago!” The captain gestured meaningfully at Johnny's casted ankle, although he did not quite meet the paramedic's eyes as he did so.
“I know, I know,” Johnny quickly agreed. “It's just this, I don't know, this ... feeling ... I got on the roof, just before Roy dropped the lifelines...” He trailed off, shifting awkwardly in the car's seat. “I mean, the fire was right there, breaking through the roof, Cap! But it didn't reach us in the back corner at all, and it should've, you know?”
Now it was Hank Stanley's turn to look uncomfortable. “The fire's ... involvement ... on that top floor was a little... unusual,” he allowed. Hesitating for a minute, he finally continued, “The partial collapse that happened, it shook bricks from the exterior wall inside, into the path of the flames. Common sense tells me that shouldn't have happened, but it did.”
“It was like the Building knew we were there, and tried to protect us,” Johnny said quietly. He turned and stared directly at the captain. “That's what it felt like, Cap! I know how crazy that sounds, but I think that's what happened.”
A muscle twitched in the captain's jaw as he contemplated the dark-haired paramedic's words. Just as quietly, he admitted, “That's almost what it felt like to me as well, pal. But we both know realistically that is was just a fluke that the fire burned that way.” He clapped a hand on Johnny's shoulder and tightened it briefly in a show of support. “In the meantime, today's demolition is the best thing that could have happened to this old Building.”
The two men exchanged a long, telling look, then broke eye contact to return their gaze to the heavy equipment across the street. As they watched, the crew chief emerged from the small office trailer at the edge of the site and signalled a halt to the vehicle operators. The workers retreated to the trailer, obviously taking a break before continuing with their work.
O o O o O
The corner lot was suddenly and eerily quiet, the heavy machines still and silent without their human masters. Abruptly, without warning, Johnny pushed open the car door and stepped out, grabbing his cane as he swayed slightly. Quickly regaining his balance, the paramedic limped across the road toward the demolition site. As a startled Hank watched, John stopped beside the fence, leaned his walking stick up against it and bent down, awkwardly picking something up from the ground. A second item, then a third, joined those held precariously in the crook of the young man's non-cane-holding arm; slowly he straightened, turned, and steadily made his way back to the car. Hank climbed out to wait for him, casting a curious glance at John, but electing to remain quiet as he once again opened the passenger door and assisted his paramedic in getting settled. Returning to his own spot behind the wheel, the captain waited for an explanation.
John sat in silence for a long moment, cradling the three objects in his lap. At last, he picked one up and handed it to his commander. “I thought you might like to have a piece of this Building before it completely disappears, Cap.” The paramedic's look was introspective, his tone pensive.
Hank swallowed heavily as he contemplated the object Johnny had placed in his hands. The red brick was chipped, blackened, with a faint aroma of smoke still emanating from it. The colours contrasted sharply, even in the muted light of the overcast day. Turning to face the younger man, he hesitated as John continued to speak.
“I've picked one up for myself, and one for the office at the Station, Cap.” Johnny motioned to the third brick. “I know we don't usually keep ... souvenirs ... from a fire, but this seems appropriate, somehow.”
“I completely agree with you, John.” Hank nodded in understanding. “The two of us saw more of that Building than we wanted to! But now, after it's all over, I don't mind having a piece of it to remember what happened.” The captain smiled faintly. “This was very thoughtful,” he added. “Thank you.”
Johnny shrugged. “Soon bricks like these will be all that's left of the heritage buildings in this block,” he observed. “Bricks and memories. And we have both, in spades, don't we, Cap?” His mouth quirked into his patented half-smile as he took a last look at the skeleton of the Building. “I think I'm
ready to go now, if you wouldn't mind driving me home. There's nothing more to see here.”
Hank started his car at once, fastening his seat belt and putting the vehicle in gear. As they pulled away from the curb and moved slowly down the street, however, Johnny found he couldn't resist one final glance back. For a moment his vision wavered, and he saw a proud, three-storey red brick Building, complete with its distinctive corner tower and round arched windows, presiding over the intersection of Yonge and Gould Streets. As he blinked in surprise, the image shifted and became reality once again: a partially demolished, burned out shell and piles of twisted rubble. Tightening his grip on the brick still held in his hand, Johnny sketched a quick salute as the Building faded into the distance. A piece of the city's heritage might be forever destroyed, but the strength and dignity of its history would remain with the men affected by the fire for a long time to come.
Posted to Site 08/30/12
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