Through the Inferno
Jessi Noelle © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Jason Merone held three aces to go along with the two eights on the board. Dead man’s hand, he thought, pondering the best way to string along the other guys in the pot for the most chips. The game was Texas Hold’em, and he was a great white in a guppy pond.
The Sunday night poker game at Station 7 of the Biloxi Fire Department was winding down. Dinner was devoured and cleaned up, letting the crew relax until the shift’s end at 6:30 in the morning. Weekends came with no scheduled duties other than cleaning the surrounding housing area of the fire station. The only call they’d responded to was a fender bender on the exit ramp of the interstate, fortunately with no injuries, making a quick and easy run.
“Too rich for me,” Captain Engmeyer said after Jason raised, folding his hand and stepping away from the table with a muttered, “Gonna drain the main vein.”
Down to two and time to show. He flipped his cards, showing the nuts.
“Mutha fuck!” The red-faced veteran opposite him yelled as he slapped his beaten flush to the table. Everyone at the table laughed. “Shit, Truffy. I thought for sure I had you beat, the way you were betting.”
“Hell, Vince,” Jason retorted to the veteran of four years. “You oughta know by now the house always wins.” He grinned crookedly, pulling the chips, worth about twenty bucks, over to his side and adding them to his pile.
His phone chirped before the next hand, and he glanced at the screen. Jenna. Not a good time, love. He let his girlfriend’s call go to voice mail and shook his head at the expectant faces at the table. “What? I’ll talk to her later. Deal, deal.”
It only took another twenty minutes to finish collecting the rest of the chips from the guys.
The klaxon sounded just before three a.m. Jason woke, instantly alert. Around him, the other guys threw off covers and made a mad dash to the restroom. No one wanted to be stuck on a scene for hours while needing to pee. He double-timed to the truck, wiping the crusty sleep out of his eyes.
Jason was almost to the driver’s side door before he remembered; Vince, newly certified and soon to be officially promoted to pump engineer, was taking driving duties this shift. His abrupt change of direction caused him to smack into Vince’s shoulder.
“Whoops, sorry, dude. Forgot you were driving today.”
“Naw, Truffy, you’re good.” Vince opened the door and slid behind the wheel.
For Jason, putting on turnouts was a ritual, a centering moment of zen and muscle memory before charging into chaos. He threw the Nomex hood over his head as he slid his feet into the boots. In a swift movement, he grabbed the suspender straps to bring the pants up to his waist and shrugged them over his shoulders, then swung his arms into his coat. The faint smell of sweat and old fires wafted around him as he fastened the pants and jacket shut. Helmet, gloves, and air tank would be added while en route. Inventory: check, check, check. Ready to rock!
Ritual complete, Jason swung into his seat, back against the driver’s compartment. Dave, his best friend, crashed into the seat facing him, grumbling at being woken up. Dave sucked at poker, busting out early and going to bed. Although he only did the bare minimum around the station, no one outworked him at a scene, and there was no one Jason would rather have covering his ass in a fire.
The Engine pulled out of the station within two and a half minutes. Up front, the captain radioed the en route confirmation.
“Copy en route, Engine 7,” the dispatcher said over the engine and siren noise. “Responding to River Oakes Manor at 1787 Winding Way Road, between Stanton and Hollyberry Streets, for reports of fire involving multiple apartment units, possible persons still inside.”
Faces went grim as the team absorbed the information. “Police unit en route confirms heavy smoke,” the dispatcher continued her litany. “Engines 3, 5, and 8 also dispatched with Ladder 2 and Ladder 9. EMS and PD confirmed en route. Time is 02:57.”
Captain Engmeyer shifted to face the crew in the back, steel-gray eyes serious, his mouth drawn into a grim line. “Okay, guys, this is gonna be real. We’ll be first on scene. Jason and Dave, I want you on the first line in. Get in there, knock it down as you go, clear as many units as you can. Scott, Billy, I want you guys to set up an attack line near their point of entry. I’ll direct the incoming engines until the battalion chief arrives on scene. Let’s stay safe and get it done!”
Jason looked back over at Dave, whose game face likely mirrored his own, and noticed his focus fixed outside the window. He turned his head in the direction Dave stared and saw the orange glow of flames on the horizon. Dave shifted his attention to Jason, and held up a fist. “Let’s kick the tires and fight the fires!” they said in unison as they bumped knuckles, a ritual dating back to when they were freshmen on the high school football team. A few practiced flicks secured the air tanks to their backs, followed by the facemasks and helmets. They pulled the bulky gloves on last. Dave unhitched the Halligan tool, a round metal bar with prongs on one end and flat scoop on the other, and held it vertically between his legs, thrumming a nervous beat against it with his leather-clad fingers.
Final check¾Jason did one last inventory¾good to go. The muscles in his legs began to twitch in anticipation of the looming combat. No matter how many fires he fought, each one set his heart pounding like the first.
Upon arrival at the scene, they were slowed by the sheer number of gawking civilians crowded outside in various degrees of panic. Vince finally maneuvered the engine to the sweet spot, close enough to set up operations, but not too close in case the building collapsed.
Time to go to work.
The building danced with flames, spewing inky gray-black smoke.
With Dave behind him, Jason held the nozzle and moved into position. Next to them, Scott and Billy did the same. At his signal, Vince pumped water through the line, building pressure. The hose firmed in his hands, and Jason opened the nozzle to vent air and confirm a cone-shaped stream. They approached the entrance of the two-story building, a double door leading to a hallway with four units on each side.
Jason reached back and touched his hand to Dave’s leg. Ready?
Dave slapped his shoulder twice. Ready!
They put their shoulders against the door and heaved it open, ducking to the side as flames roiled bright orange over their heads. On their knees, they crawled into the inferno, the hose trailing them like a lifeline.
The soupy smoke obscured their vision. As they advanced, Jason sprayed water on the flames, changing the shape of the stream to attack any pockets of fire he could reach. Then he switched back to fog to try to clear the smoke and cool down the immediate area. His nerves sang softly, keeping him on his toes.
In the belly of the beast, they moved with a brute grace, sharpened by years of teamwork and training. The hiss of exhaled air from Dave’s mask was comforting, an almost subconscious homing beacon, letting Jason know where his partner was, even when they weren’t in physical contact. When he came across a door, Jason would call out to Dave, waiting for the reassuring shoulder pat before twisting the knob and using the Halligan tool if he found it locked. Jason fell into the reassurance of the routine. At each unit, Dave stopped at the doorway and pulled slack for the line, feeding it to Jason before following the hose hand over hand until reaching Jason again. Together, they would clear the apartment, then pull the line out, and go to the next one. It was intense work that left them breathing heavily within minutes.
They completed the bottom floor in good time. Getting the hose up the stairs was trickier, but the routine was the same. Clear a unit. Place water on fire. Return to the hall. Go to the next unit.
At the third apartment on the second floor, Jason heard a cry faint enough to be his imagination. He went still, his heart suddenly racing, and tried to hear over the noise of wood crackling merrily away and the thudding of his suddenly racing heart. The scream from the bedroom to his left was unmistakable.
“There’s a kid!” he yelled over his shoulder as a new jolt of adrenaline kicked in, wanting to leave everything and get to the kid, before his training kicked in. Gotta wait for Dave.
The flames inside the unit illuminated cheap tan carpet melted from the heat. Jason sprayed the room, cursing the immediate darkness as the fire died down and smoke settled in. A smack on his shoulder told him Dave had arrived, and they felt their way to the bedroom area. The small, terrified scream sounded again, as they desperately searched for the source, trying to pinpoint the sound.
Jason swept his arms along the floor for what felt like an eternity, before his hands hit the railing of a bedframe. He reached under, hitting something soft and dense with his gloved hand. The soft mass yielded a cry of pain, and the glow from the outside street lamp penetrated the smoke enough to see dimly. The boy was maybe three years old, body rigid with panic, and wearing pj’s with a dinosaur print. Jason’s fleeting thought was that all of the toddler’s probable night terrors were coming true.
“I got him!” He unceremoniously tugged the child from his hiding spot. The heat was overwhelming. “We gotta cool it down in here!”
Dave took over the nozzle, and they began a careful retreat. Flames rolled and climbed along the wall beyond the door of the bedroom. Dave sprayed it with water, enraging the beast the fire had become. Steam mixed with smoke, and still the fire burned.
Jason keyed his radio to inform dispatch and on scene personnel they had located a victim, and they began to make their way out. Dave was on point now, using the fog setting to reduce the heat around them as much as possible.
A moment later, the line went limp, the stream collapsing to a dribble.
“No water!” Dave closed the nozzle, waiting for the pressure to rebuild.
Jason relayed the information over the radio. The coughing of the child in his arms was getting worse, sending a pang of panic through him. They had to get out now for the kid to have any chance.
The hallway was a flame-filled gauntlet, and the hose was still underpressured. No escape that way. On his back, a bell attached to his air tank chimed, indicating low air supply. Five minutes or less, a primal part of his brain chanted, get out now!
“The window,” Jason called out. He turned back into the bedroom. The heat was all consuming, and over his shoulder the once-panicked child had gone limp and quiet. Oh God, no. Only his training and six years of experience kept his mind calm, as his heart beat double time. It took several moments to reach the dim glow of the street-lit window, long enough for Jason to curse Vince at the engine pump. No time to worry with the window sash. He cocked his elbow and crashed it into the glass. The pane shattered outward from the impact, the cooler air outside rushing in.
The backdraft occurred faster than Jason could realize his mistake.
Fire surrounded him, angry and howling as the outside air gave it new life. The searing intensity of the heat felt like flame against naked skin, driving them to get as low as possible. Jason felt more than saw Dave scramble over to him. Felt rather than saw the floor buckling beneath him as Dave reached him. On his back, the low-air bell implacably chimed.
Get to the window. Get to the window. His brain was on a loop, everything in him yelling to get out. He tried to get to his feet, the child falling away as he clambered for the window. The world seemed to tilt as he turned back, reaching frantically for the kid. Suddenly, the hose in Dave’s hand went rigid, kinks popping out audibly as the pressure increased. Taken by surprise, he lost his grip on the nozzle. It smacked Jason near his ear, knocking his helmet sideways and pulling his facemask askew to the right. Dazed, Jason fell back against the wall and heard the hiss of air escaping from his mask as he fumbled to find the boy with the dino pj’s again.
Then the floor beneath him crumbled.
Jason tried to grab anything as gravity pulled him down. The weight of heavy wood and plaster around him gave him no purchase, the smoke pushing down to smother him as the hiss of the escaping air grew fainter.
The last thing he heard was the shriek of his personal alarm going off, joining with Dave’s.