THEME word: HERO
The blood curdling screams of onlookers were punctuated by the cracking of super-heated crossbeams and the deafening crash of a ceiling no longer held in place.
Stephen slammed his mask on as fast as he could, checked his gauges, and ran for the crumbling building. His truck was the last to arrive on scene, but so far no one had found their way back in to the single story with basement home.
The fire raged even as the hoses pumped hundreds of gallons of water a minute onto the flaming walls and roof. Stephen always imagined fire had a life of its own, a thoughtful pattern, a sinister desire to wreak havoc and pain wherever it wished.
His captain was in his ear, yammering orders about caution and moving slowly. Any novice, any idiot really, could look at the state of the house and know time was not playing along to the same tune as Captain Trellick. He gave the thumbs up anyway and ducked through the door left wide by the first team that had swept through.
The original call said the house was empty, and no one had been discovered on the main floor. Firehouse 46 was going to pay dearly for not also checking the basement before the fire got to the point at which it now raged. It was after the dryer on the main level caught fire that things got out of hand and it was also after that point when they heard the cries from within the burning building.
Stephen and his team were specially trained to handle extractions in extreme situations so he was prepared to dive in with little thought to his own safety except as it pertained to the rescue effort.
He’d been told on the drive to the structure fire that the door to the basement was straight down the hall and the last door on the left, so through the thick smoke and heat that made him sweat buckets underneath his protective gear he inched his way in. His partner was stationed at the door to keep in radio contact and monitor the situation from that end.
“Del, I’m at the door. Testing the handle. Looks good.”
Stephen turned the knob and pressed the door in. The air was thick with smoke, but no flames jumped out at him. He took a tentative step onto the landing at the top of the stairs and by some miracle avoided being crushed under the crumbling ceiling as it smashed down where he’d been standing only a second before.
“Damn. Not getting back that way.”
“Say that again, Steve. What’s up?”
“The ceiling caved by the door. Is there another way out of this basement?”
“The house is old, dude. There’s only non-egress down there, probably not big enough for an adult, let alone all your gear. You sure it’s blocked off?”
Stephen took a step forward to look at the hallway in more detail. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Okay, we’ll come back to that. Do you see anyone yet?”
“Hold on a sec. There’s a lot of smoke down here, but I’m only seeing one area with fire so far. The floor collapsed somewhere above. Probably a bedroom.” He creeped down the steps one at a time and called out, the sound muffled by his mask. “Hey! Anybody down here? I’m a firefighter. Come to help.”
“Over here!” someone cried from the opposite side of the caved in ceiling where the fire licked down and around, working its way along every flammable surface.
Stephen paused at the base of the stairs and assessed the ceiling. It looked like it would hold for a little longer.
“Listen, sir, I’m going to get you out of here. Can you step to your left and climb over that countertop?”
“No, I’m sorry. I lost my leg in the fire and my crutches are over there. I can’t pull myself up there.”
“I don’t follow. Are you injured, sir?”
“Not from the fire, but I’ve got no legs. One is clean off gone, the other is only half a leg, but when the ceiling came down I lost the prosthetic under the burning rubble pile.”
“I’m coming to get you. Just hang tight.”
Stephen had never heard such a story before and couldn’t see the man’s lower body, but it was quite a tale. He pressed his back to the cement of the basement wall and slid sideways around the burning debris. He could feel the heat of the flames dancing overhead. His breathing had become quicker and his heart raced like an Indy car, but the rush of adrenaline was all part of the job.
He reached the counter and crawled over where he was then able to see the state of the man. He was missing one leg at the hip and the other at the knee. The side of his face was damaged as though he’d already been through one fire.
“Come on, sir, I’ve got you,” Stephen said and picked the man up who was much heavier than he appeared.
They both grunted in the process, but the man he was rescuing choked and gasped as he breathed in the acrid smoke now filling the room. If the fire didn’t get him the toxic smoke surely would. He set the stranger down on the counter where he was able to pull himself across to the other side.
“The name’s Brandon,” the crippled man said as Stephen crawled across to meet him.
“Are we going to make it out of here, Stephen?”
“That’s the plan, Brandon,” Stephen said and placed his mask on the man’s face for a few seconds then picked him up and carried him to the other side of the basement.
The stairs were a no-go, so Brandon showed him the window farthest from the flames. They were able to get it open and Stephen radioed for help outside. The firefighters outside were able to pull Brandon out through the tight space, but Stephen wasn’t sure his broad chest, even without gear, would slide through.
More of the ceiling was coming down and the stairs were entirely engulfed in flame. He looked around and swallowed hard. There was no other way out of there. It was his only shot, so he started taking off some of his bulkier gear.
From the outside he heard his buddy Del calling for some extra help and the next thing Stephen knew the window had been ripped clean out of the cement, opening up a huge hold in the side of the crumbling foundation. He took one last long inhale of clean air then stripped down to climb out the window.
Once out of the hole he sucked in a lung-full of air then whooped at the starlight night sky. Del kicked his foot.
“Hey, a little thanks is in order, dude.”
“You’ve got my eternal gratitude, Del. How’d you pull that off?”
“The neighbor had a chain and tractor he offered, and it seemed opportune. The captain signed off on it, so hey! What the heck, I thought. Why not.”
“You’re my hero, man,” Stephen said from his spot laying on the wet grass ten feet from the now smoldering house.
“Actually, the guy you saved is the hero. The guy deployed five times before he lost his legs and half his face.”
“You found all that out in the five minutes it took to pull me out of there?”
“Well, when you meet a guy with no legs in the basement of a house that’s on fire, you kinda just gotta ask questions, dude.”