(The names of my colleagues have been changed to protect the guilty. I mean, innocent.)
I was upstairs getting a cup of coffee when the run came in. My heartbeat accelerated when I heard three beeps over the loudspeaker, the signal for an incoming box alarm. There was a bit of static, and then the dispatcher read off the assignment “Battalion One, Engines 1, 3, 5, and 8. Ladders 1 and 3. Rescue 1. Medic 5. Respond on Box 1342. Heavy box assignment. Fire in a commercial building. Time out: 1426.”
I dumped my coffee in the sink and sat the cup down on the counter before making my way over to the pole. As I opened the gate and wrapped my arms around it, the captain and Griffin came out of the day room and angled towards the other pole. The pole gave its customary squeak as I slid down to the ground floor. Paddy, our E/O on Engine 1 (that means engineer/operator…the guy who drives) already had the motor running as I kicked off my shoes and stepped into my boots. Reaching down, I grabbed the pants and pulled them up, shrugging my suspenders over my shoulder as I climbed into the cab. I kept my coat on the rear facing jump seat behind the driver, which was my riding position. Paddy gave a long burst on the air horn as we pulled out of the station. I put hood on and then my coat. Since we were dispatched to what, as far as we knew, was a working fire, I pulled my hood down, off of my head, put my mask on, and then pulled my hood back over it. Testing the seal with my left hand, I dropped my helmet on my head with my right before threading my arms through the straps of the air pack. Then I put on my gloves.
“Dispatch said they are confirming stills, boys,” the captain yelled over his shoulder to Griffin and I.
Through his mask, I could see Griffin grin. He shot me the bird and yelled, “Fuck you, asshole!”, though his voice was muffled. Why the epithet? Earlier in the shift, he’d beaten me at a game of Madden on the PlayStation 2 and our bet was that the winner got to take the nozzle at the next fire. “Kiss my ass!” I yelled back, but I don’t think he heard me.
The Box Number was in our first due, and we pulled up right behind the Battalion Chief. As we climbed out of the rig, I heard him say, “Battalion One to Fire Alarm, transmit a 10-75 on Box 1342. Show all companies working.” I took a couple of deep breaths to slow my pulse as I opened a side compartment and got an ax and a halligan bar. Obviously, we in this line of work know that fires are bad for the victims, but we can’t help but get excited by them, especially since they don’t happen as often as they once did.
The building was a squat blue square with boarded up windows. It had been a bar for a couple of decades, but had closed a few years before when the owner got sent to prison for touching children inappropriately. A thick carpet of smoke pushed down from the eaves of the roof, which told us that something was definitely burning inside and, given the shuttered nature of the place, it was gonna be an oven in there.
While the captain had a brief word with the Battalion Chief, Griffin shouldered the attack line and stretched it towards the door, moving in a zig zag pattern. I followed behind him and flaked out the hose. The captain joined us at the door as Griffin sat the hose on the ground and took the halligan bar from me. Placing it with the prongs over the lock in the crease of the door, I tapped it a few times with the butt of the ax until the locked gave way with a crunch. We pulled the door open and felt the heat slap us in the face as smoke rolled out over our heads.
As we plugged our masks into the SCBA tank, the Captain signaled to Paddy to charge the line by raising his right arm and waving it in a circular motion. The hose suddenly came alive as Griffin bled out some of the water from the nozzle.
“Alright, you mick bastards,” the captain said, “let’s go find her and put her out.”
We advanced into the darkness of the building with Griffin on the nozzle, the captain directly behind him with his hand on the top of Griffin’s air pack. I followed several feet back. My job as the third man on the line was to help feed them slack on the hose. A charged fire hose is heavier than you might think. Every few feet, I’d stop, turn around facing the way we’d come in, and pull more hose in after me, grunting with the effort.
I don’t know how much time passed, or how far I’d gotten into the building. It was hotter than hell in there. Somehow, and I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but I lost my connection with the hose. No big deal, I thought. I felt around with my hand trying to find it, but my fingers felt nothing but floor. Okay. That’s not good. But it’s not a major thing, I told myself. Deciding to move in a circle so that I could eventually cross the line and regain my place, I crawled around waving both arms back and forth along the floor. Nothing. I yelled as loud as I could for Captain or Griffin, but they did not hear me.
This happened back in the day before every firefighter carried a radio, and our department had also not issued us PASS devices, so I truly was on my own. Never one to panic, I straightened out and crawled in a line. I figured that I would hit a wall at some point, and could follow it to a door. There was all sorts of obstacles that I kept bumping into. Chairs, tables, etc. The smoke had pushed down so low that there was no visibility. And this is when I started to panic. My breathing sped up which started to run my tank down even faster. There I was, on my hands and knees, staring down at the floor. I knew I was dead. My mind projected images of a big department funeral with bagpipes and hundreds of uniformed firefighters. To make it worse, my mask started to buzz with the low air alert. I had only minutes to get out, but how? Which way should I go? Reflexively, I started to say Hail Mary, full of Grace. The Lord is with thee…
And then it happened. What I’m about to tell you is true, though you may think I’m crazy(er). I assure you, however, that it did indeed happen.
I felt hands cupping my chin through my mask. They lifted my head up and I found myself looking into the bright, big blue eyes of Maria Nikolaevna. Now, those of you who follow my blog will know that I first encountered photos of her when I was around 13 and that I was somewhat captivated by her. She was bending down, with her face level with mine. There was a bright…I don’t know…aura around her and I could see her despite not being able to see much of anything else.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I will protect you.”
I stared dumbly at her without knowing what to say or do. Part of me thought I was already dead and dreaming. She straightened up and took a step back, extending her hand down to me.
“Take my hand,” Maria said in a clear, calm voice.
Well shit, I thought. It ain’t like I got any other options here. So I held up my hand and she took hold of it. I remember thinking that she had an impressive grip as she gently, but firmly, pulled me to my feet. I pause here, Dear Reader, to saythat by standing up inside a building filled with smoke, heat, and fire gases, my mask should’ve failed and I should’ve gotten a lungful of superheated air, which would have killed me, but I felt no heat at all.
“Come with me,” she said as she turned and led me into the smoke. I could see nothing but her, as if the smoke itself parted around her. After a very short walk, Maria paused and pushed open a door. I could see bright sunlight outside and Engine Five parked on the side of the building.
Maria let go of my hand and stepped aside, out of the doorway. Then she put her right hand on my air pack and gave me a push toward the light. Right as I reached the door frame, she took hold of my shoulder, stood on her toes, and whispered the words that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
“I will always watch over you,” she said. “Always.”
As I walked out the door, my mask ran dry. I disconnected it from the SCBA tank, pulled my helmet off, and the ripped the mask off. Ahead of me, Jack, the E/O of Engine Five was looking at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I walked up to him and asked for a cigarette. I should have immediately gone to find the Battalion Chief to report that I’d gotten separated so that he could let my Captain know I’d made it out, but you aren’t always in peak mental form when something like this happens.
My hands were shaking so bad that I couldn’t light the cigarette, so Jack did it for me. As I inhaled he said, “Can I ask you something, Hutch?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Who was that lady in the doorway with you?”
I looked at him for a full minute before I said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Jack shrugged and said, “I won’t say anything else about it.”
And now, Dear Readers, I will say that it is up to you whether or not you believe this tale. But I know what I saw in that building on that day. Strange things happen in fires. I’ve heard stories of dead loved ones appearing to lead civilians to safety. Firefighters have spoken of angels or Saint Florian guiding them out of situations in which they are trapped. In my case, it was Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna Romanova. My blue eyed angel.