Fifty Shades of Batman

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In An Unnamed American City, somewhere near the Gulf Coast, in the Spring of 2006.

Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

“Fire Alarm calling Ladder Two.”

Wellshit…, I thought. We had been inside the grocery store for around ten minutes and had a cart full of stuff. As we did not receive as many calls as Engine Two, we handled the shopping duties as soon as the shift allowed. It was around 11:30am on a Friday. Maybe they just have some info to give us, I thought as a keyed the radio.

“Go for Ladder Two.”

“Fire Alarm to Ladder Two, switch to TAC One for a still.”

I switched my radio to the assigned channel and heard the alert tone. We handed our basket to an employee who wheeled it towards the back of the store. Getting interrupted by calls happened from time to time and the store stuck our cart in the freezer for us until we could return.

“Ladder Two and Medic Seven. Still Alarm. {Address omitted}. EMS call. Unknown emergency.”

My E/O had stayed outside with the truck and he had the engine running and the emergency lights on as we walked out of the door. I climbed into the front of the cab and checked the computer for the call notes. It didn’t give me much. Just that a neighbor called in and said she heard the woman next door calling for help and saying that she was stuck.

“Get outta the way, you dumb mother—-r!” my E/O yelled at a car hesitant to yield as we pulled out of the parking lot.

I flipped on the siren and stomped the air horn pedal as I radioed, “Ladder Two responding to the still.”

Fire Alarm confirmed we were in route and I followed up by asking, “Ladder Two to Fire Alarm, have PD make the scene too.”

Typically, our police department did not respond to our calls unless it was the type of call that they would be at anyway. (Car accidents, crime related injuries, etc). Since this call was for an unknown problem, I made a command decision to go ahead and have an officer or two there just in case we needed them. I operated under the idea that it was better to have help and not need it than to need help and not have it.

We had our headsets on and I listened to my two firefighters in the back talk. One was going into great detail about the various acts, quite gymnastic I must admit, performed by his latest girlfriend the night before. Sometimes I think if the general public knew the kind of stuff we talked about while speeding through traffic on our way to a call, we’d all end up in the Mental Hospital.

I’d only been the OIC (Officer in Charge) on Ladder Two for a couple of months having transferred over from Engine One where I’d been a Lieutenant for a couple of years. (I didn’t put in for it. Let’s just say it was an administrative reassignment). Two days ago, I’d received word that the transfer I did put in for, to the Arson Bureau, had been approved and I’d be starting the police academy in a month. On Engine One, we ran 14 or so calls a shift, in an area referred to uncharitably as “the ghetto”. Station Two protected a more genteel part of town, with residential neighborhoods filled with homes that all looked alike and Karens lurking behind every bush ready to demand to speak with someone in charge about our sirens being too loud, or us having to break windows when their house caught fire. It was a bit of a culture shock to me. Though I’m white myself, I didn’t grow up around many white people and I don’t know how to behave around middle-class white folks. In my two months, I’d managed to rack up a few citizen complaints due to my tendency to speak bluntly, and sometimes profanely

We turned off the main drag into a neighborhood. I reached over and cut the siren off. No need to anger another Karen, even though it was high noon on a weekday. A quick right, followed by a left, and we halted in front of a single-story residence. There were two cars in the driveway. Next door, a woman in a mumu and slippers waved at us.

“Jesus,” I said. “I knew I should’ve ran away and joined the Foreign Legion.”

We climbed out of the truck and I walked over to the good citizen who, I assumed, had been the 911 caller.

“It took you long enough to get here,” she said by way of introduction.

(It had taken us three minutes from the time of dispatch, which isn’t bad at all. But try explaining that to a civilian.)

“Are you the caller?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

I thought she would continue, but she didn’t, so I had to say, “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is.”

“I was doing some gardening on the side of my house,” she said. “I saw Kyle come home. Sometimes he comes home for lunch on Fridays. He went inside. I don’t know how much time passed, but then I heard Hayley calling for help through the window. I walked over and asked what was wrong and she said she was stuck and needed help. She’s not hurt. Just stuck. That’s when I called.”

“Okay,” I said. “why don’t you take me over to the window.”

I motioned my crew to stay by the truck and followed the woman over to the window. I kept well away from her flower beds, but she made a point to tell me not to step in them anyway. When I reached the window, I put my mouth up against the screen and yelled, “Fire Department! Can anyone hear me?”

“Yes!”

I heard the faint sound of a woman’s voice.

“Ma’am,” I said. “Are you hurt? Are you in any danger?”

“No,” she said. “I’m not hurt. But I’m stuck. Can you help me get out?”

“We can, ma’am,” I said. “Tell me your name.”

“It’s Hayley,” she said.

“Okay, listen to me, Hayley. We need to get inside the house. Do you have a spare key hidden anywhere outside?”

“No,” she said. “That isn’t safe to do is it?”

“Never mind,” I said. “We are going to have to force the door. Is that okay?”

“Yes!” she said. “Stop talking and do it.”

Now there’s a girl that knows how to take charge, I thought. When I walked back around to the front of the house, I saw the ambulance and one patrol car had arrived. The two medics leaned against the side of the ambulance watching the house. The police officer walked up to me and I filled him in on the situation.

“Do you think someone is keeping her captive in there?” he asked.

“Uh…no,” I said. “If you were going to hold someone hostage, would you let them talk to the fire department through the window?”

“What if the kidnapper is taking a nap or something?” the officer suggested.

I looked at him for a moment and then turned away to my crew. I yelled for them to grab the irons off the truck and then we met at the front door.

“Take it,” I said as I stepped aside. My two firefighters made short work of the lock and the door swung inward. Perhaps I should’ve sent the police officer in ahead of us given that I didn’t know what I was walking into. But this was in the days of when I thought I was invincible, which I continued to do until the night I found out I wasn’t.

“Fire Department! Where are you?” I yelled as I stepped into the foyer. The furnishings in the house were nice, much nicer than I was used to seeing inside the myriad of houses I’d been in on the job. The place was clean too. It smelled like pine or Glade Air Freshener.

“Back here!” came the reply.

I turned the corner and saw that a short hallway dead ended into a door. From my memory of the exterior of the home, I knew this would lead to the room where Miss Hayley was stuck…though in what or by what remained to be seen. When I reached the door, I paused for a moment, my hand on the doorknob, and took a deep breath. Then I pushed it open.

Nothing in my academy training or the years I had spent on the job could have prepared me for the sight my eyes beheld. The room was a small, obviously not the master bedroom. There was a desk along the right wall and there was a bed directly beneath the window from where I had made verbal contact with my victim. There was a low hanging ceiling fan as well. Oh, and my victim? Miss Hayley was a young blonde woman in her mid-twenties. She was a natural blonde. How did I know that from my vantage point in the doorway?

Well, Dear Reader, she was spread eagle with her wrists and ankles handcuffed to bed. Naked. Butt naked.

“Um, don’t worry ma’am, we’ll get you free in just a second,” I said as I turned to face my crew who were busy trying to peer over my shoulder. “One of you dipshits go grab me a towel or blanket. Or robe. Something. And tell Officer Donut to get his ass in here. We need his handcuff keys.”

“No! I’m fine!” Hayley insisted.

You certainly are, I thought before I banished such unprofessional ideas from my head.

“The key is on the desk,” she said. “I don’t need help. He does.”

“Who does, ma’am?” I asked. It was then that I noticed a few drops of blood on the bed in between her legs, around the level of her knees.

“Kyle! My husband!” she insisted as she jerked her head towards the wall to the left (from my position) of the bed.

I walked over and looked down into the narrow space between the bed and the wall. I found Kyle. He was unconscious and bleeding from the head. He was wearing a Batman costume. I mean, complete with cape and everything. It was a nice costume.

As Officer Donut unfastened Hayley from the bed, I had to figure out what we were going to do with Batman. There wasn’t room to get to him, so we were going to have to move the bed. But we knew he had a head injury and I had to take into account that he might also have suffered a neck or spine injury. Batman was laying on his right side, with his back facing the bed. I had an idea.

“Look guys,” I said, “lets see if we can wedge a backboard in there behind him. We’ll use that to keep him in this position while we move the bed. Then, I can squeeze in there and hold his head in place while we roll him onto his back. Anybody have a better idea?”

No one did. Officer Donut and the two medics pulled the bed back as we slid the backboard in between Batman and the bed. Then, I held his head while we slowly rolled him over onto his back and then slid him out from beside the bed. I accepted a c-collar from one of the medics and put it around Batman’s neck. He was starting to wake up.

I slapped a dressing on the gash on his forehead. It was going to need some stitches and he’d have a hell of a headache in the morning, but I figured he’d be fine.

“Is he okay?”

I was kneeling down when I heard Hayley’s voice behind me. I turned and looked over my shoulder to tell her that he would be, and I noticed that she was still naked. And I was eye level with her…well…you know.

“I thought I told one of you assholes to get her a blanket or something,” I said to my crew.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m fine.”

You know, if I wrote my firefighting memoirs, I would call it A Thousand Naked Strangers. But there is already a book by that title. Batman was able to tell me his name (Kyle), where he was, and what day it was. His pupils were equal and reactive. I stepped back and let the medics take over. They loaded him on the stretcher and wheeled him away. Hayley said she would follow them to the hospital. I suggested she get dressed first.

Before we left, Hayley told me what had happened. Kyle had “attached” her to the bed and went into the other room to change into his Batman costume. When he re-entered the room, he sort of fluffed his cape and went to dive onto the bed. He misjudged his jump and went head first into the ceiling fan which then deflected his path and sent him onto the floor instead of the bed.

I figured we’d all be laughing about this around the station for months to come. But, Dear Readers, there is an even funnier postscript to this story, but I’ll have to save that one for another day. Note, Dear Readers, that the subjects of today’s tale were trend setters. This happened before the whole Fifty Shades of Grey thing. After those books came out, calls involving handcuffs increased.

Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.

L.H.

No Such Thing As A False Alarm

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My Cairns New Yorker. Leatha Foreva! 

Dear Readers,

Last week I told you the strange tale of what happened to me in a fire. Today, I thought I’d give you one more fire department story; one which taught me a valuable lesson.

It was my first shift as a Lieutenant in charge of an engine company. We’d had some company training in the morning, and by 2pm, we’d run four calls. A car accident. Two medical calls. And one fire alarm at an office. I was upstairs in the office trying to knock out some paperwork. Our call load picked up considerably during the overnight hours and so I didn’t want to get behind. I heard a bit of static over the intercom followed by the warbled high low tone that indicated an incoming still alarm.

“Engine 1, respond to a still. 531 {Address Omitted}. Fire alarm in the building. Respond on Tac 3. Time out 1412.”

Cursing audibly, I got up from behind the desk and stomped over to the pole. This particular address was a known problem location. Engine 1 made three or four fire alarm calls out there every week. Though the city had a nuisance alarm ordinance that fined places after the third false alarm in a month, this was an apartment complex and the fire alarm was usually activated by cooking, so it wasn’t technically a false alarm. For some reason, the alarm system hated fish as it seemed to us that a person cooking fish is what usually set it off.

I slid down the pole and met my crew (two firefighters and my E/O) on the ground floor. I kicked off my shoes and stepped into my boots. With one tug, I pulled my bunker pants up and shrugged my suspenders on. I kept my coat in my riding position (the officer’s seat is in the front right, like a passenger seat in a car) with the sleeves threaded through the straps of the air pack. My helmet stayed on the dashboard. The motor turned over and I waited for the firefighters in the back to yell that they were ready, then I nodded to my E/O.

“Engine 1 en route to the still,” I said over the radio as I mashed the air pedal with my foot and flipped the switch to activate the lights and then the siren. My E/O pulled out of the station and made a left followed by a quick right. He drove like a maniac. As we approached each intersection, I scanned my right for oncoming traffic so that he could focus on the left. It seemed like I must have said, “Clear right” a million times. To get to this address, we had to turn right off a main drag and then drive about a half mile down a side street that dead ended into a body of water. After the first few hundred yards, the urban sprawl cleared out until all of a sudden, you reached the three building apartment complex which seemingly rose out of the ground.

As we neared the building, I cut off the siren and picked up the radio mic. I held it next to my mouth and pressed the PTT button as I craned my neck to look up at the buildings. I keyed the mic and said, “Engine 1 to Fire Alarm. Show Engine 1 on scene investigating.” And then it happened. I heard a loud pop and saw a jet of flame shoot out of a third floor window. “Holy shit!,” I exclaimed….without realizing that I still had the microphone keyed. I recovered in time to try and play it off.

“Engine 1 to Fire Alarm! Gimme a heavy box. Transmit a 10-75. Go ahead and gimme a third alarm assignment. We got visible flames from the third floor of an occupied apartment building. We are laying in and making a fast attack.”

I had to make a split second decision. Under our normal operating procedure, the first due engine at a fire went straight to the scene and conducted the primary search and initial attack while the first due truck handled ventilation. The second due engine dropped a LDH (large diameter hose) at the hydrant and then drove into the scene. They then connected their LDH to the first due engine, or, they could stretch additional attack lines if needed. However, here I had heavy fire conditions and the additional resources would be slow getting there because they weren’t sent on the initial alarm. I knew we’d drain the internal tank on the engine too quickly, so I wanted to establish water supply since we’d have to “John Wayne” it until more units got to the scene.

We stopped at the hydrant and dropped off one firefighter as I got my coat and hood on. Once he’d gotten the hose secured on the ground, we pulled up to the scene as I looped my mask around my neck (I didn’t put it on my face yet) and placed my helmet at what I hoped was a jaunty angle on my head. (I was a bit cocky back then).

“What line do you want, Loo?”

“Grab the deuce, Mick,” I said to my firefighter as we got off the engine. There is an old saying in the fire service. Big fire. Big hose. Small fire. Small hose. This was a big fire, so I wanted to go with the 2 1/2 inch. There was a small group of people gathered around in front of the building as Mick humped the the hose towards the stairwell. An elderly woman with two young children approached me. She said the fire was in their apartment at the end of the hallway. This apartment complex was like a hotel with the doors opening into an interior hallway as opposed to external balconies. She said everyone was out of the apartment, but she didn’t know any of the other residents on the third floor as she was babysitting her grandchildren and didn’t live in the apartment.

I mentally cursed my bad luck as I headed up the stairwell to meet Mick. My second due engine was coming from our sister station. They were slow…in every sense of the word. We had a joke about them that they were minutes behind when seconds count. Around this time, the Battalion Chief and Ladder One arrived. We shared a station with them and so they weren’t far away.

“Engine One Alpha to Ladder One”

(Once I was on my handheld, I became Engine One “Alpha” and the E/O who stayed with the engine was Engine One)

“Go ahead, Hutch.”

“We got a line stretched to the third floor, but I need you get into these other apartments for a primary search.”

“Ladder One received.”

“Battalion One to Engine One Alpha.”

Go for Engine One Alpha.”

“Be careful, Hutch. You got smoke coming from the eves on the corner of the building. It may be in the ceiling space.”

“We got it, Chief.”

As we exited the stairwell, I saw a thin haze of smoke gathered along the ceiling in the hallway. As we made our way down to the last apartment on the left, I checked the doorknobs on the other apartments. Some opened and I yelled, “Fire department! Everybody out! Now!” but no one emerged.

As we reached the open door to the burning apartment, flames were starting to roll out at the top of the door frame. Without a word, Mick and I dropped or our knees, took our helmets off, pulled our masks down, our hoods up, and then put our helmet and gloves on. I heard movement behind me as I plugged into my mask and saw Lefty, the firefighter we’d dropped at the hydrant, take his spot on the hose.

“Engine One Alpha to Engine One. Charge the line! Charge the line!”

Mick cracked the nozzle just a bit as water slammed its way along the hose line. The whole apartment was rocking. Flames flashed and danced across everything. And there I was thinking we’d find a simple room and contents fire. To run the risk of sounding crazy(er), fire can be a beautiful thing to behold in its untamed form. There’s nothing I loved more than crawling into the belly of the beast.

I leaned down close to Mick’s ear and yelled, “Let’s hit this bitch from here!”

I wrapped my right arm around the hose and allowed Mick to lean back into me, with my left hand on the top of his air pack as he opened the nozzle. It was slow going. We’d hit the fire, move a few inches forward, hit it again, move a few more inches, but soon we’d made it all the way into the apartment. We had fire pushing towards us from two directions. We’d hit one and it would retreat as the other advanced, and then we’d hit the other as the first one advanced.

I heard some garbled messages back and forth on the radio, but couldn’t make out what they were. We were a bit too busy dealing with the situation in front of us. Steam banked down and cooked us a bit inside our gear.

“Havin’ fun yet?” I yelled into Mick’s ear.

“Fuck you…sir,” he replied.

He worked the nozzle around at the ceiling level and then down to the body of a fire in a “T” pattern called a combo attack. Normally the deuce and a half will do some serious damage to a fire, but this one was stubborn.

Finally, I heard a message come over the radio.

“Command to Engine One Alpha, back out now. You got fire behind you. Bail out now!”

Huh? I didn’t know what to make of the message. You know, we used to say that to put out a fire, you take away the fuel, you take away the oxygen, or you take away the Battalion Chief, but mine was a good one that knew his stuff. I didn’t want to shut the line down, leave it, and crawl out because we might need the line again, and to shut it down meant the fire would push right back at us, so we made a fighting withdrawal. Hitting the fire for a second, shutting it down and backing up, and hitting it again.

When we got to the hallway, I immediately saw the problem. We had visible flames showing from a couple of the apartments behind us, closer to the stairwell we’d used to come in.

“Uh…Engine One Alpha to Command.”

“Go ahead.”

“The fire is in the cockloft.”

“We’re venting the roof now, but you need to get off the third floor.”

This was an older apartment complex with a common attic space that ran the length of the building with no fire stops between the apartment units. That said, even at the time it was built, this was a code violation. However, we didn’t know this for sure until after the fire was out. I also doubted the fire rating on the walls and ceiling was up to part either. Oh, and the best part was that there was only one stairwell (though there was an elevator that we couldn’t take). Yes…we were in code violation city.

Flames started rolling along the hallway ceiling ahead of us as the flames from the original apartment regained a foothold and started to push out into the hallway. I admit, the lyrics to Stuck in the Middle With You flashed through my head as I had fire to the right of me and fire to the left. With the fire getting worse in front of the stairwell, it was a matter of time before it compromised our hose. Time for another quick decision.

“That’s the only way out,” I yelled to my crew. “We have to go through it!”

Now, the hallway dead ended into a large window. Sure, we could have had them put a ladder up to the third window, but we’d have to break it to get out. That wouldn’t have posed a problem, as we like breaking windows, but the sudden rush of fresh oxygen might pull the fire right over the top of us before we could get out and I didn’t fancy getting burned.

So we made a U-turn and inched back down the hallway, with the nozzle set to straight stream (Right for Fight), we made a push to the stairwell door. It got a bit toasty, but we made it. We left the hose in the hallway and headed down the stairs. When we got outside, we saw the extent of the fire. Damn. It looked pretty bad. More sirens echoed in the distance as addition units headed to the scene.

By the time we’d put the fire out and took care of all the hot spots, the fire had taken 22 hours to extinguish and required the equivalent of six alarms. As it turned out, it was an intentionally set fire and it’s spread and behavior were influenced by the shady construction features in the building. The whole third floor was a smoking ruin, and there was extensive water damage on the second and first floors. They ended up bulldozing the whole damn thing later once the investigations and lawsuits were over.

Since I’d been the initial officer on scene, the Assistant Chief let me clear the scene over the radio 22 hours later.

“Engine One Alpha to Fire Alarm.”

“Go Ahead.”

“Tap out Box 1639. Holding units 401, 404, 406, and 407. All other companies in service.”

(The four hundred radio numbers were our arson guys).

I learned some valuable lessons from this fire. First of all, I assumed that it was just another bullshit false alarm. Until I found out it wasn’t. That was the last time I ever made such an assumption. Now, do you need to have your crew pack out every time you make an alarm call? No, that’s overkill. But I never waited until I made the scene to put my coat on again. Any report of smoke, and the packs go on with masks at the ready. Though I knew the layout of the building, I didn’t really take that into account. I went straight for the fire. An aggressive move on my part, but had I taken the time to properly consider the conditions, I might have waited for additional companies to get there and focused instead on doing a sweep of the other apartments on the floor. Keep in mind, this was “back in the day”. Doing things like waiting to mask up until you get to the door is frowned on in a lot of places. Then again, I’ve seen guys breathing air from their tanks when as they get off the truck which is stupid. It’s okay to mask up on the truck, but don’t plug in until right before you make entry. It only takes a second. But the safety nazis frown on interior attacks, leather helmets, poles in stations, and doing anything but hitting it hard from the yard these days. Still, my first fire as an officer wasn’t a complete disaster, but it could have been. Thankfully, I’ve always been able to learn from my mistakes. I emerged from this call a better officer, which made my crew better.

So remember, Dear Readers, there is no such thing as a false alarm.

L.H.

The Angel and the Smoke Eater: The Strange Tale of What Happened to Me One Afternoon

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(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 Maryfull of GraceThe 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. Я люблю тебя.

L.H.

A Different Path

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Dear Readers,

I have, on occasion, been asked if I had not entered the fire service as a young man, what I would have done for a career. Admittedly, during my years on the job, I saw my share of challenging situations and had my own close calls, I never faced the ultimate challenge. The reason why my research focuses on firefighters in war zones is precisely because I never worked in one myself. A fact, I hasten to add, that I do not regret as I am lucky to have grown up in a place where such things don’t happen. However, there is a small part of me that wonders if I could have done it. Could I have worked in Berlin during World War Two? Or London during The Blitz. Belfast during The Troubles. Or more current conflict zones like Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine and Syria. The answer is that I don’t know.

To return to the original question, though, there was a second career plan should the fire service not pan out. Had I not been able to secure employment in the fire service, I wanted to be a journalist. I was torn between a print journalist and a photojournalist. I had no desire to work in television. To be more specific, I would have wanted to go to work either as a freelancer or for the AP or Reuters and report from conflict zones around the world. Ideally, I’d find a war going on somewhere that the rest of the world is ignoring and go there to cover it. Would it be dangerous? Yes. Frustrating? Certainly. Rewarding? Possibly.

I guess part of the reason that this appealed to me was from watching news coverage from places like Sarajevo and Grozny during the 1990s. That said, I’m a better writer than I am a speaker, and so you’d not find me in front of the television cameras. If I had my life to live all over again, would I go down this path? Probably not. I’d stick to the fire service. However, if I get to have another life after this one, it is what I’ll most likely do. I’m happy with the way my life turned out, so I have no regrets about not pursuing this career. Sometimes, though, I do wonder what my life would have been like if I had.

Then again, maybe I was just born with a death wish.

L.H.

More Than A Feeling

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In my opinion, the pole was the best part of the job. Sadly, they are slowly disappearing. A travesty, in my opinion. I was just as excited to use it on my first call as on my last. 

Dear Readers,

One day in class, a few semesters ago, I was teaching about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire when a student raised his hand. As students rarely tend to ask questions (or stop by to visit during office hours), I stopped mid sentence and bid him to speak.

“What’s it like being a firefighter?” he asked.

I started to give him my usual stock answer which doesn’t actually the question because it’s a difficult one to put into words. He interrupted me and said, “No! I don’t mean the bullshit answer you give everyone. I want to know what it’s really like.” And that got me to thinking. The feeling itself is what it feels like. I’ll explain:

It’s the feeling you get when the house lights kick on at 1:58 in the morning. You hear a bit of static from the loudspeaker and then three beeps. You leap out of bed and stagger to the pole, wiping sleep from your eyes, as you hear the dispatcher’s deadpan voice reading the assignment. “Battalion One, Engines 1, 3, and 5, Ladder 1, Rescue 1, Medic 4. Respond on Box 415. 5th Street at Franklin Avenue. Box Alarm Assignment. House Fire.” You slide down the pole, step into your boots, hitch up your pants, and shrug your arms through your suspenders. The engine coughs to life as you climb into the cab and throw your coat on. You can smell smoke in the cold night air as you pull out of the station, threading your arms through the straps of your air pack and placing the helmet on your head at an appropriately jaunty angle. In the distance, you can see a dull glow against the night sky as the radio crackles to life and you hear the dispatcher say “Confirming stills on Box 415. Report of occupants trapped.” Now, in this exact moment as you speed through the darkened streets with siren howling as you catch the reflection of your emergency lights in the vacant store front windows, there is nowhere else you would rather be than right there in that seat headed to that fire.

That feeling, Dear Readers, is what it’s like to be a firefighter. It’s the same feeling, no matter if you worked in 1819, 1919, 1999, or 2019. It’s the same feeling, no matter if you work in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Houston, New Orleans, or the myriad of cities and towns in between. It’s the same feeling, no matter if you work in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, China, Australia, or Antarctica (yes, there is a fire department in Antarctica!). It’s this feeling that creates the bond that transcends time or distance, and binds all firefighters together, no matter where or when we worked. It’s a feeling we crave, and a feeling we desperately miss when we retire.

And so there you have it. That’s what it feels like to be a firefighter. I’m happily retired, but I’d give anything to slide the pole one more time. Just one more time…..

And…..apparently this is my 100th Post! Thank you to all my old and new friends! 

L.H.

 

The Silver Screen Part Two

Dear Readers,

I apologize for the somewhat lengthy delay between posts. My summer classes started a couple of weeks ago, and so I’m spending a couple of hours in the car plus four hours in a classroom during the week. It’s been tough to find time for much of anything. But enough of the excuses. Shortly after the release of my novel, I wrote a piece about the actors/actresses I’d most like to see play the four main roles. If you’ve forgotten it, check it out here. Now, I shall turn my attention to the minor roles. I’ll do this in two parts though. Today’s post will cover the Berlin story line and I’ll write another piece next week which will cover the story line in England. So let us sally forth and select a cast of characters! As before, it is imperative that the person must be relatively close in age to the character.

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I’ll start with Schneider. She’s one of the four young women assigned to Karl’s station as auxiliary firefighters. In a way, her character is the most important of the four as she had more of a rapport with Karl and thus had more dialogue and a, I guess you could say, memorable role at the end of the book. I think I like Dakota Fanning for the role. She did an excellent job in Brimstone and is close enough (five years) to Schneider’s age. I’m certain she could do justice to the character.

The other three auxiliary firefighters do not have major roles, and so who plays them isn’t quite as important as perhaps the others. That said, I think I’d like to see Sierra McCormick, Bailee Madison, and Veronika Bonell in the roles. I’m basing this primarily off the fact that they are the right age and would, in my opinion, look right in the role.

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The most important of the four Hitler Youth boys, whose name we never learn, happens to be the perfect role for a 14 year old indie actor who is from the large city nearest me. His name is Josh Wiggins. I do think he’d be spot on for it. Though a minor character in my book, the youth undergoes a bit of a dramatic change and so the chosen actor has to be able to convey that with few words. I think young Josh would be up to the challenge.

Ursula’s roommates, Monika and Gisela float in and out of the story. We catch glimpses of them at work and in the basement waiting out an air raid. They view the war as almost a source of amusement. Though minor characters, they are important because through conversations with them, we get an insight into Ursula’s views on the world. I think I would like Taissa Farmiga (L) as Monika and Hannah Kasulka (R) as Gisela.

Now let us turn our attention to the three firefighters who work alongside Karl. They have major roles to fill. As you’ll recall from when I wrote about the main characters, I’d like to see Volker Bruch as Karl Weber, station commander. It is important to note that the three other men, Baumann, Frei, and Fischer, are around a decade or so older than Karl’s character. My picks would be Matthias Brandt as Baumann, Til Schweiger for Frei, and Axel Prahl as Fischer.

There are, of course, some other characters (such as the Gestapo agent, Major Bandelin, etc), but this covers the major minor roles. Let me know what you think. And stay tuned for a future update about the the audiobook!

L.H.

 

 

 

The Silent Killer

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Dear Readers,

I’ve taken a few weeks off from writing or blogging for my own peace of mind. I have summer courses starting on Monday, so I wanted to enjoy a bit of my summer. It does put me behind a little in where I’d like to be with Molly’s Song, but I’m close enough. What’s on tap for today isn’t writing related or history related, but its an important one.

This morning I read a post shared on Facebook. It was from the wife of a firefighter who’d recently lost her husband, not in a fire or a roof collapse, but from the culmination of a thousand fires. He was lost to our most dangerous enemy in the fire service; cancer. It stalks firefighters, both active and retired, and it can kill with surprising rapidity.

When I was a young man, new on the job some two decades ago, I thought it looked salty as hell to have a scorched helmet and gear. We rarely cleaned any of  our gear. When arriving at a house fire, we’d take the time to mask up right at the door, taking in some carcinogens in the process. There was no ventilation system for the exhaust on our trucks back at the station. Later, as an arson investigator, I never once, not a single time, wore a respirator while digging through fire scenes. It’s little wonder that today I suffer from breathing difficulties and I do know from my twice a year chest x-rays that I have scarring on my lungs.

Back in the day, we didn’t know better. No one gave much thought to cancer, yet it seemed like every retired firefighter I knew died of either cancer or a heart attack (our other killer). Today, there is a much greater awareness of the dangers of job related cancer and also steps that can be taken to lessen (but not remove) the risk. The fire service as an organization can be, at times, resistant to change. But this isn’t something to play around with. There’s nothing “cool” about salty gear if that gear increases the odds that you might die of cancer in your 30s or 40s. Take the proper measures to ensure that you’ll be around to enjoy your whole career and to be with your family when they need you.

I’m a lot more aware now myself, but I’d be lying if I said I never worry about it, late at night when I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling. But I’m retired. And that’s why I worry that maybe, for me, it might be too late. That’s a worry you don’t want.

L.H.

Firefighting in a Doomed City

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Dear Readers,

This week I had the opportunity to binge watch a six episode series on Netflix called Charité at War which focuses on the lives of the staff at the famed Berlin hospital during the Second World War. The final episode stood out to me the most, as it dealt with how the hospital coped, and indeed continued to operate, despite the Battle of Berlin raging around them.

As my novel So Others May Live touches on the fire brigade in the city during the months in which the areal Battle of Berlin brought a nightly rain of fire to the city, seeing how a civilian hospital functioned despite shortages of almost everything was interesting to say the least. During the research for my own novel, I learned that the fire protection police in Berlin continued to operate up until the absolute end. Even while Soviet troops battered their way into the city, firefighters still answered calls.

On April 22, General Goldbach, the commander of the fire protection units in the city, ordered their evacuation. For this, he would be executed just a few days before the war ended. Over 100 firefighting vehicles and their crews made it out before the Russians cut the last road out of the city. However, some companies remained behind and continued to work in an increasingly deadly environment, as evidenced by their casualty lists. Others turned into soldiers, and defended their stations from the Soviet forces until they were overrun.

What follows are the Berlin firefighters killed in action during the last month of the war, though the list is not complete as record keeping was difficult to say the least, given the circumstances.

21 April 1945

Erich Malodystach and Werner Böhm drove into a Soviet ambush while returning to quarters after a responding to an emergency and were mortally wounded by machinegun fire.

24 April 1945

Herbert Wiesenthall was in a tow truck attempting to recover a stalled fire engine when he was caught in an artillery barrage and killed.

25 April 1945

Wilhelm Brand was in a column of fire protection police vehicles which came under areal attack and was mortally wounded.

Karl Pohlmann was killed while attempting to remove traffic obstructions near the Brandenburg Gate in either an artillery or an air strike.

General Walter Goldbach, the commander of the firefighter forces in Berlin, was executed by the government for previously ordering all fire protection units to evacuate the city on 22 April. Some did, but others remained behind and continued to work.

26 April 1945

Arthur Nieber was killed while attempting to re-locate some vehicles from Spandau.

27 April 1945

Gustav Merta was struck and mortally wounded by shrapnel from an artillery shell. He died later that day in the hospital.

28 April 1945

Herbert Zimmermann was killed by enemy fire while fighting a building fire.

30 April 1945

Otto Doerks was struck in the back by grenade fragments while fighting a fire in the city.

Richard Hackbarth and Otto Hall were killed by an artillery shell while returning from a call, along with a third, unknown firefighter.

The following are members of the Berlin Feuerschutzpolizei who were killed in action in April 1945, though the circumstances are unknown.

4 April 1945

Hermann Schinkinger

10 April 1945

Max-Joachim Baumgarten

23 April 1945

Kazimir Nawrotski

26 April 1945

Heinz Hamann

30 April 1945

Richard Raufeisen

Otto Streich

When you add the two lists, including the unknown firefighter on 30 April, then we can see that at least 17 firefighters were killed in action during the final few weeks of the war in Berlin. Technically you could say 16 since General Goldbach was the commander but not actually a firefighter. It is quite likely that the true number is higher, since many of the firefighter deaths in Berlin during the height of the war due to air raids or later street fighting went unrecorded.

One of these days, I’ll revisit the fire station I wrote about in So Others May Live and we will see what happened to the crews during the final two weeks of the war.

Please Don’t Ask

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The camera caught me in an unguarded moment. We all have our demons. 

Dear Readers,

This post has nothing to do with my book (available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover!), which I’m sure you’ll find a welcome relief. In fact, it isn’t about writing or history at all. It’s about a question. A question which I frequently find myself being asked (as in once every few months). Though the person asking never asks it with malicious intent, it nonetheless invokes strong emotions in me. So consider this a PSA. The scenario usually unfolds like this:

“So you are a retired firefighter, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”

Do you really want to know? Do you really want that inside your head? Because I’d gladly give it to you if it meant it would be out of mine. Do you want to know the sound a person makes when they are on fire? Do you want to know what it is like to hold a teenager’s hand and have them say “Please don’t let me die”, and you promise them that you won’t, even though they are fading right in front of you and there is nothing else you can do. Do you want to know what it is like to keep working on a drowned toddler, though they are too far gone, for the sake of their parents who are standing over your shoulder. Do you want to know what a body looks like when it has been ejected from a vehicle and said vehicle has rolled on top of it? Do you want the smells? Blood, piss, shit, burned flesh, vomit, or my least favorite, blood mixed with alcohol. Do you want to see what an explosion does to a body? And these are just a few examples. I could go on, but I won’t.

What you are actually asking me to do is to relive my worst nightmare. You ask the question, but what you don’t see is that I won’t eat or sleep for days afterwards. You won’t see my hands shaking uncontrollably. You won’t see me alone in the dark, surrounded by ghosts. You won’t see my wife losing sleep to stay up with me. You won’t see me having difficulty performing the most basic of tasks. Sure, it passes eventually. But I’d rather not have deal with it to begin with.

I know, people are obsessed with the macabre. They watch serial killer shows. They slow down to gawk at traffic accidents. But real life isn’t a television show. Trust me, you don’t want what is inside my head. I never thought, as a young firefighter, that all these years later that I’d lose sleep at night over incidents long passed. But I do. I guess that means I’m human after all.

So ask me about the funny calls, and I’ll keep you laughing for weeks. You can even ask me about the most memorable calls, and I’ll gladly share. But please don’t ask me about the worst thing I’ve ever seen. My wife is my best friend. There are some things, however, that I haven’t even told her about. She doesn’t know the answer to that question, and so I’m certainly not going to share it with a stranger.

Some public safety personnel are perfectly okay with answering that question. That’s their business. But just because some are doesn’t mean that we all are. So unless you know someone really well, it is best to avoid asking something so blunt and potentially insensitive. Yes, I know, morbid curiosity and all that, but if we want to tell you, let us tell you in our own way.

L.H.

So Others May Live: The Silver Screen

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Dear Readers,

I’m sure I’m not alone among novelists in pondering who we’d like to play our characters should our book be turned into a movie. Mine never will be, of course, but it is still a fun exercise. Sure, I’d love to see my characters brought to life, but then I’d complain about how the director/producer took my work of art and turned it into something else. I wrote my novel without considering this question, and so I’ve had to search for actors/actresses who fit what I envision when I think about my characters. Once you’ve read my book, please let me know if you concur with picks, or, if not, who you’d pick to play a character and why.

Of the utmost importance of selecting the following folks was age. Too many war films have actors too old to be believable in the role. Also, for Ursula, a redheaded actress was an absolute must as that is an essential part of her character. The only main character not in their early twenties is Karl Weber, who is in his mid thirties. But fortunately, there is a perfect actor for that role.

Rachel Hurd-Wood

Let’s start with Grace. Her character is in some ways the most important one in the novel, but I won’t spoil it for you by telling you why that is. It’ll be apparent when you finish reading the book. For her character, I’d select the English actress Rachel Hurd-Wood. She’s close to the right age, and she did an great job in the period drama Home Fires which ran for two seasons before it was abruptly canned. She has the right look, or at least I think she does. To me, having already acted in a WW2 series is a big plus. Though she wasn’t really a major character in the series, her character did experience highs and lows, from getting married to then losing her new husband in a tragic accident. As an actress, she handled that quite well and I am confident she could do justice to Grace’s character.

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From Grace, let’s move to her fiance Michael O’Hanlon. This would be a tricky one to cast. While Michael is from Belfast, whoever played him would have to be able to handle that accent, which is kind of specific. I don’t know if my selection, Liam Ainsworthy, can do that, but if so, I’d think him a good fit. He’s done some soap opera work in the UK and I know he isn’t Irish and it might be best to have an Irish actor in the role, but his name is Liam and that is Irish, so it’s close enough. The reason I think he’d do good in the role is that he has a brooding, almost haunted Irish look about him. That is an essential part of Mick’s character and so I think Liam would work in the role, provided he can do a Belfast accent. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. Note, he’s also young enough to be believable in the role.

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Confession time. I don’t watch Game of Thrones. (Go ahead and send me hate mail if you must, but it just isn’t my kind of show). That said, I think Sophie Turner would be perfect to play Ursula. She has red hair (a must for the role), and she’s young (another must). Acting in a series like GOT is no doubt quite a challenge, and is somewhat akin to a historical drama, so I’m certain she could handle portraying a young woman in 1943 Berlin.

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Volker Bruch is an absolutely perfect fit to play firefighter Karl Weber. He’s only a few years old than Karl’s character, and he has done an absolutely amazing job in two big period pieces, Generation War and Babylon Berlin (now on Netflix). In Babylon Berlin, he plays a police detective in the 1920s, so I’m sure he could handle playing a firefighter in the 1940s. He speaks English too, which is kind of important since the movie would need to be filmed in English. Though I had already finished writing the novel when Babylon Berlin debuted on Netflix here in the States, when I saw his character on screen, I thought to myself that he’d do a great job as Karl.

And as a bonus, this would be a great song to play over the closing credits.

I haven’t gone so far as to consider all the minor characters. That would be a bit too much for me, so I’ll just stop with the major ones. Feel free to let me know who your picks would be for characters major or minor. Maybe I’ll revisit this post in a few months with reader picks.

If you haven’t bought a copy yet, So Others May Live is available for Kindle and in paperback on Amazon and is available for hardcover pre-order on the Barnes and Noble website.

L.H.