Chapter 1: The Screamer
It turned out she was a screamer.
And not in a good way, Gage thought as he lay on his left side, doing his best to tunnel his way into the back seat of a collection of metal and upholstery that once was a car. Though there was something to be a said about a beautiful woman with … fervor. Yeah, that was a good word for it. Except not in this case.
"OhmyGod, OhmyGod, OhmyGod, please get her out, she's my baby…"
The coupe had rolled, probably more than once based on where it'd ended upon the sidewalk upside down with its driver's door pressed up against a telephone pole. The roof had pancaked, leaving only a space so narrow and tight that even he felt claustrophobic as he shoved and pushed and dragged himself into the gap between the back of the front passenger seat and the doorjamb. He could've waited for the Jaws to enlarge the opening but he could hear it still in use, dragging groans from the dashboard of the other car as it tugged the chains upward inch-by-grinding inch and pulled the steering wheel out of the chest of the driver that Roy was still trying to save
"OhGodplease, I can't, pleasepleaseplease, get her out.I can't…"
It was like a puzzle or a game of twister to contort his body into this slot, around that metal frame of a seat that used to be covered with upholstery before gravity, friction and concrete had ripped it and the foam from the metal. The female driver of this car had been extricated through the windshield, after they'd removed it of course. Barely even walking wounded, she was still screaming: incoherent moans and unearthly shrieks that made his nerves vibrate. He gritted his teeth as he dragged the skin of his left forearm across something sharp and unexpected on the roof of the car that now rested on the sidewalk. Which made it the floor or the ground or something.
"Lorena, baby, OhGodplease, Lorena, baby, you have to be all right, please, Oh God…"
There was more but much of it was incoherent sounds that were even worse than the pleading cries, intermixed with the sound of an adult woman whimpering in terror and trying to lean into the car when there wasn't enough space for him as it was.
He took the flashlight out of his mouth and hollered back over his right shoulder, "Cap!"
Someone had to get her out of here, had to get her away from the car or he was going to lose his mind because her terror was pervasive and contagious and despite the thousands of rescues he'd done, the hundreds of cars he'd crawled inside, she was starting to freak him out inside a wreck that was already more than a little worse than normal.
"Ma'am, c'mon, I need you to step back away from the car."
Cap's voice was pitched to reassuring and firm, which worked on about 80% of victims but slid right off hysterical mothers, screamers or otherwise.
"OhmyGod…it was just one… just one second. She took… I heard her take it off… I could hear the sound… and then I saw her moving. Oh God, just one second. I told her… I turned my head for one second to tell her to put the seatbelt back on….And then… and then…."
"Ma'am, listen to me. We are doing everything possible to help your daughter but we need your help and she needs your help."
He's pulling out the big guns, Gage thought as he dragged himself another inch into the back seat, pulling himself along by his left arm, flashlight in his mouth and the fingers of his right hand extended in front of him straining to reach the huddled form on the floor – okay, on the roof - behind the driver's seat.
"Please, just… just get her out. Please, God, she's just a little girl…"
"Listen, we don't know if your daughter is injured…"
Gage grimaced. Cap had to know that the injured was probably the best possible outcome here.
"… but whatever her condition, this would be a frightening situation for anyone. If she hears that you're scared, if she hears you panicking, it's going to make it even more frightening for her so we need you to calm down and let these men do their jobs..."
Hank Stanley's voice was growing fainter, as if moving away, which Gage hoped meant that he'd managed to lure the still whimpering woman to a safe distance, preferably to a police car or an ambulance, if one had finally arrived, where she'd be protected from the sight of fireman extracting her little girl from the back of a pile of scrap metal.
With The Screamer gone, he could hear the little girl's short, shallow breaths. Not great, but at least she was alive.
The tips of his fingers touched fabric, something soft and cotton, and then flesh, slightly cooler than his own. He moved his palm onto the skin, extending his fingers to determine what the flashlight didn't quite make clear. Okay, an arm. He slid his fingers to the right; the circumference of the arm narrowed as he did so, which meant he was going downward towards a hand, towards her wrist. He felt for a radial pulse with his right fingers and grabbed the flashlight with his left.
"Hi there, sweetheart, my name is Johnny. I'm a fireman and I'm going to take care of you and get you out of here, okay?"
There. Fluttery and weak, like a butterfly beating against his fingertips.
Outside, footsteps hammered against pavement.
"Gage, how's it going in there?"
Cap, back from handing off The Screamer to someone far enough away that he couldn't really hear her any more. As usual, Cap was bounding around the scene like a border collie checking on his flock, making sure Marco'd hosed down all the gas, searching for any new hazards and checking in on his paramedics and their patients.
"She's alive, but her pulse is about 110 and weak."
He heard Cap draw a breath. "Okay. What do you need?"
"Cervical collar, backboard –the short one – and O2." And Roy, he mentally added, even knowing that his partner was tied up at the other car with the other victim. "We're gonna need some other way of getting her out of here, Cap. I can't pull her out the way I crawled in. We'll probably need a board and it just doesn't bend the way it'd need to."
"Roy's using the O2 from the squad on his victim. I'll get you the O2 from the Engine. Squad 36 is ten minutes out and I have a second ambulance on its way."
Cap had to be biting his tongue to not remind him that the reason the Squad was short an O2 canister was Gage's own damn fault for not grabbing another canister to replace the one they'd used on that earlier call, the one with that asthmatic smoker.
He heard Stanley back away from the car, shouting orders as he did so.
"Stoker, we're going to need the Ajax tool, a short board, a c-collar and the O2 from the Engine over here. Lopez, bring the Jaws over to Gage's car and assist him in extrication. DeSoto, I'll be right there."
If Mike was leaving the Engine, Cap must've decided they weren't going to need the hoses again. Well, good; he could use some help since Chet was at Roy's car, helping with the guy who'd hit a steering wheel a lot harder than anyone's sternum could handle.
He pulled himself another few inches into the car and ran his right hand up her arm, until he reached her shoulders, then moved across her shoulders to her neck and found the carotid. He held his breath while he counted – no real difference from the radial pulse - and then slid the hand down her torso.
"Respirations are thirty-five," he called to anyone who was listening.
No dampness, nothing wet that he could feel and even though the smell of much diluted gasoline was still stronger than anything else, there was definitely something else there, probably urine.
A little girl's abdomen was supposed to be soft and warm and pliable; he shouldn't feel any resistance. They needed to get her out now.
"Gage! Hey Johnny!"
"How's she doing?"
He was pretty sure she was unconscious from the way she was breathing and her lack of reaction to his voice or touch but damn, wouldn't it be the one time in a thousand where someone actually heard him say that they weren't doing so good, and from the little he'd felt so far, she needed every bit of encouragement she could get.
"Well, she'd be doing a lot better outside the car, if you get my meaning."
"Yeah, okay." There was a pause. "Listen, we've stabilized the car as much as possible but there's no way through the back window. The roof is just too compressed; might as well try to cut the whole back of the car off. We could try to pull the front passenger seat out of here but we think the best option is to cut you a back door, here on the passenger side so you can bring her straight out."
"But we can't do that with you hanging half in, half out of the car. Not safely anyway. You think you can fit in there? All of you, I mean?"
Gage looked around, using the flashlight. He'd be bunched up and it would be tight, but it was do-able. The fact that they were lying on the roof made it a lot more workable than if the car was right side up though it would have been nice if he could get up on his elbows without banging his head.
"Yeah, Marco, I can fit. You think you can push me in a little?"
It took two firefighters pushing and one frantically shifting his body so he didn't bump into his injured patient before he was in, knees tucked awkwardly against the metal frame of the passenger seat.
"You got your coat on?"
Of course he didn't have his turnout coat on. How the hell did Marco think he wedged himself in here with that on?
There were some words outside that he didn't catch and then a hand pushed a bundled up coat stenciled 'Lopez" through the passenger door.
"I'm going to go get a blanket but you can start with this to cover up in there. There might be some stray sparks."
Gage grabbed the coat and unfolded it into a small tent that could cover his head and the girl.
"Listen, sweetheart, I mean, Lorena, some of my friends are going to cut us a special exit from the car so we can get out quickly…" and without doing any further damage to you, "so it's going to get pretty noisy in here for a few minutes, okay? Don't be scared, it's just like an electric knife. Did your Daddy ever carve a turkey with an electric knife?"
A shout from Marco and then Cap's voice joined the others and another bundled up coat was pushed through the door. As he draped it over his torso, he wasn't surprised to see the name "Stanley" stenciled on the back since Mike was too smart and too careful to use the cutter without adequate protection. And Cap would have his ass if he did anything unsafe.
"Give me the collar now, Marco. She's gonna need it with the vibrations."
The continued unconsciousness was worrying him. He wanted to check her eyes but didn't have the right angle to do so and he could not move her so he let his fingers be his eyes: swollen left cheekbone and a bump in her hair, just above and behind her right ear. Marco passed him the collar and a blanket and Gage held his breath as he wrapped it around her neck.
The noise when it started wasn't really loud, nowhere near as bad as the K-12. The pneumatic chisel went through the steel side panel as easily as an X-acto knife cut through cardboard. Still, it was probably a little unnerving to hear for those who weren't used to it and little Lorena should have reacted. But she didn't.
He used the time underneath the Marco turnout tent to continue checking her out. She was lying on her left side in an almost fetal position; legs bent but not fully pulled into her stomach, head bowed. He gently traced her spine and neck and found no deformities which he counted as a small miracle considering that without a seat belt on, she'd been tossed around the inside of the rolling car like laundry inside a dryer. Probable tib/fib fractures on her left leg, swelling on her left wrist
He wondered how Roy's patient was doing. They probably had him out of the car now, might even be in transit to Rampart. He couldn't remember if he'd heard an ambulance arrive or depart.
With that type of trauma to the chest, Roy wouldn't be able to do CPR if the guy coded. He blew a breath out in commiseration for his partner and sent a thought to whatever universal Force or Higher Power guided the universe – assuming one did – that Roy would get the guy to Rampart without the guy arresting. Assuming they'd gotten him out of the car alive in the first place.
Pulse 110, still weak. Respirations thirty-five and shallow. Come on, guys.
And where the hell was Squad 36? Of course, they could've arrived and set up right outside, not that he'd heard anything with Mike using the pneumatic chisel to remove the side panel of the car. Cap had said they were ten minutes out, but he'd lost track of time.
He pushed Marco's coat up a half inch and then slightly more to see how much progress had been made. Daylight flitted through long, straight lines – Stoker had a hell of a steady hand – and Marco must've covered his bunched up legs with the blanket while he was examining Lorena. Huh. He'd never even noticed. Another ten seconds of cutting and Stoker was done.
Gloved fingers grabbed at the side panel, tugging it downward and away, and then one of the gloves grabbed the blanket off Gage's legs and folded it over the remaining crumpled steel where the window had once met the roof. Before the roof had been compacted down almost all the way to the windowsill.
"I need to back out a little and then you hand me the board, okay?"
"Go ahead, Johnny."
He scooted back from the girl, leaning his right hip hard on the front passenger seat that was stuck on its track and wouldn't move any further toward the dashboard. Probably would've been smart to have had Marco and Mike rip it out but he had just enough room for them to pass him the backboard, even if it wasn't anything like comfortable in his current position.
"Okay, give me the board."
A gloved hand pushed it through the opening that they'd made and he chewed his lip as he considered options.
"Okay, I'm going to hold her head, neck and shoulders. Mike, you think you can reach her to get the rest of her on the board? Grab her hips; don't worry about straightening her out. Let's just get her on the board and out of the car as she is."
Neither Stoker nor Lopez was a paramedic but all of the guys on his shift had better than average first aid skills, better than a lot of the firefighters he'd worked with before 51.
Half sitting on the back of the front passenger seat and leaning his right shoulder and upper arm into the back of the driver's seat, he got his hands into the right position, holding her head and neck steady. Stoker, stretched out on his belly, did the rest. A quick, coordinated lift of the girl off the roof/floor onto the board and then they were pulling the board out of the car.
"Slowly, slowly, take it easy there…"
He was saying it mostly for his own benefit, just providing a soundtrack to Stoker pulling the board with him as Lopez grabbed Stoker by his belt and dragged him out of the car. With the tight quarters, it wasn't as if they could actually hurry, and of all the guys, Stoker or Lopez were the least likely to do anything hasty or half-assed.
Hands keeping her head and neck in the right positions, he crawled out of the car after them, blinking away the floaters in his eyes from the sudden glaring sunlight. They half crawled the board over to the yellow blanket someone had thoughtfully spread out right next to the wreckage.
"Roy's guy was in bad shape. He needed the biophone, drug box, defibrillator, and scope," Cap's voice said from behind him. As Gage turned, Cap handed him a BP cuff, stethoscope and an IV setup. "He left you a liter of saline and one D5W. I've got the trauma box too."
Gage looked around the scene: just a small suburban intersection in a quiet neighborhood, two completely totaled automobiles, Engine 51, Squad 51 and a Sheriff's car. No sign of Squad 36.
"Three minutes out," Cap said.
Gage nodded and got to back to work.
Chapter 2: Backhand
As always, ever grateful thanks to Kel_1970 who has kept me from making a fool out of myself with some of the EMS and fire details in this story. Any mistakes that you find are mine and mine alone.
A lifetime ago, before either Wedsworth or Townsend had even thought about attaching their names to a bill that became an act that allowed him to do the job he loved, he used to wonder why the Squad they used for rescues didn't have a regular radio. He knew all of the logical reasons for why Fire Department apparatus didn't contain even an AM radio, but it was occasionally a bit dull and all too quiet riding in the Rescue Squad, dependent entirely on one's thoughts or your partner for entertainment.
Now, of course, he had Johnny.
"So, the Plan…it's like when she says it, it's all capitalized or something, but she kept going on about having a Plan, or in my case, clearly, not having a Plan. I mean, when you were my age, Roy, did you have a plan?"
When he was twenty-seven, he'd been married for six years and a father for five of them.
"Depends what you mean by a plan."
Gage turned in his seat to face Roy and threw his forearms out in a jerk. "Exactly!"
Uh-huh, Roy thought, eyes scanning the familiar streets in the route on the way back from Rampart: exiting out onto Meyler Street and then a left on W.223rd street and then a clear shot back to Station 51. Traffic wasn't too bad for late afternoon and by that he meant that it was moving.
"Well, I knew I wanted to be married to Joanne, so I guess that counts as a plan."
Gage snorted and scowled. "I don't think that's the type of plan she's talking about, Roy."
They crossed over Harbor Freeway and his peripheral vision said it was already backing up, like it did every day around this time.
"Who's cooking tonight?"
"Not me," Gage said immediately and shot a glance in his direction. "I dunno. Who did lunch? Heck, what was lunch?"
Roy shrugged."It was that chicken noodle casserole." Egg noodles and chicken mixed with some kind of soup and some chopped up vegetables; uninspiring but filling and it'd tasted fine when they'd pulled the casserole dish out of the oven a few hours ago, after the lady bicyclist with a broken collarbone. "Probably Cap or Mike."
"'Oh yeah. Well, it wasn't Chet 'cause it was edible and Marco makes his chow with a little more spice," Gage agreed.
He squinted into the afternoon sunlight slanting through the windshield. "You know who you should talk to about this planning thing?"
"I know, Roy, but you know, we haven't even seen the Engine since that MVA this morning. Who knows where they're at or when they'll be back."
"Nursing School fire. They're part of the second alarm called out about forty minutes ago."
It was only partially his good peripheral vision that alerted him to his partner's stare, incredulous and perplexed; most of it was just past experience.
He shrugged. "Heard the call over the radio."
Gage huffed and shook his head. "Man, I don't know where you find the time. We have just been running all day. You know this is the first…"
"Oh no, don't…"
The radio crackled to life. "Squad 51, stand by."
"You had to go ahead and say it, didn't you?" Roy growled.
Gage sagged and reached for his helmet with a big dramatic sigh.
"Squad 51, woman down. Veteran's Park Tennis Courts. Use Moneta Avenue entrance. Veteran's Park Tennis Courts, Moneta Avenue entrance. Time out 1622."
Gage acknowledged the call with a one-minute ETA, and then shot a glance in Roy's direction, along with a shrug. And since it wasn't as if Johnny opening his mouth had actually created the incident, even if it might seem that way, Roy let it go. For now.
There were two tennis courts, side-by-side. Assuming it was some kind of injury, they hauled the biophone, trauma box and oxygen and headed toward the crowd gathered in a loose circle on the nearside of the far court. Most of the group was ladies in tennis whites about five to ten years older than John Gage's usual target market, intermixed with two or three teenagers and a guy with a George Hamilton tan who was twirling a racquet impatiently.
"What took you so long?" the guy with the tennis racquet demanded. "I called from the payphone," he waved his racquet towards what was presumably a payphone somewhere on the other side of where they'd entered the park, "almost ten minutes ago."
"We got here as soon as possible," Roy said as he knelt next to a woman sitting near the baseline of the court. He scanned her for obvious injuries and sent her a reassuring smile. "What seems to be the problem?"
"Can't…" she puffed. "Can't….catch."
Her face was flushed and she looked a little older than most of the other women, most of whom were probably not that much older than he was actually, probably early to mid-thirties. It was a sunny October day, low humidity and not unusually warm. No signs of extensive perspiration, or at least nothing more than the other tennis players. Johnny was sending surreptitious glances towards the shapely legs of some of the female tennis players and for the briefest moment, Roy pictured Joanne in one of those short tennis skirts. Then he refocused his attention on the patient in front of him.
"You can't catch your breath," he repeated back at her and she nodded.
"Do you have any allergies? How about asthma?"
Two quick shakes of her head as he took her pulse.
"Any history of pulmonary disease? How about heart problems?"
Another head shake as he rested his hand on her torso and counted respirations.
"Do you have any pain in your chest or anywhere else?"
Another head shake.
"How have you been feeling recently? Any nausea? Vomiting? "
A rapid, frightened shake of the head as Gage pulled the elastic cord of the non-rebreather mask around the back of her head. Without words or even eye contact they'd split into the roles they needed to play. The woman was scared; she needed reassurance, needed to be calmed as quickly as possible so they could determine whether her dyspnea was brought on by exertion or was emotional or physical in origin. Calm, steady reassurance was Roy's forte, so Johnny had automatically assumed the mechanics while Roy handled the patient.
Her pulse was strong and a little fast, respiration rapid, blood pressure was higher than normal. Gage opened the biophone and contacted Rampart Base.
"How about coughing or tightness in your chest?"
Another abrupt head shake. He listened anyway through the stethoscope; no wheezing, no rales.
"Roy, I'm gonna get the scope." Johnny scrambled to his feet and trotted towards the squad.
"Have you been feeling dizzy or tired?"
"She said she's been feeling tired, washed out, kind of weak lately."
The new voice sounded oddly familiar but out of place and Roy glanced up and then blinked in surprised recognition.
"Karen. I didn't recognize you in the crowd." Or in that tennis… Is that really considered a dress? He purposefully kept his gaze on her face when he was talking to her.
"Hello, Roy." She glanced back towards the Squad. "I don't suppose they sent the Engine too."
He smiled up at her and shook his head."Sorry, just the Squad." He'd learned a long time ago that you never told a fireman's wife that her husband was at a fire instead of a nice safe rescue, even when her husband was usually the one outside sending the other guys in. "Can you tell me what happened?"
She nodded and then crouched down by the other woman, placing her hand on the other woman's back; a gesture of reassurance or support or just letting her know that someone familiar was there.
"Jackie seemed a little pale when she arrived. She said she was okay but she didn't play like she was okay. Her serve was off. Usually it blisters the paint," she said with a tight smile. "We didn't even play an entire set when I noticed that she was breathing harder than usual. She stopped for a water break and then she just sat down. Jerry, he's our instructor," she nodded toward the man who'd greeted them."He came over to check on us and when we realized that she wasn't getting better, I asked him to call you guys."
"Good thing you did," he said, noting that Johnny was bringing the defibrillator back with him along with the scope. "Hey, Jerry," he called and waited a second for the tennis pro to meander over. "You think you can round up all these people and move them off the court, give Jackie a little privacy?"
Johnny spread out a blanket and begin gently coaxing Jackie to lie down on it as the crowd was ushered off the tennis court.
"You want me to leave?" Karen said quietly.
That was probably a good idea since he really didn't want her watching if or when things went sour.
"That's up to Jackie," Roy said, fingers pressed against Jackie's carotid. "How about it, Jackie? My partner is talking to the doctors at Rampart and they want us to bring you in so they can make sure everything's all right. But if you want Karen or someone to stay with you while we wait for the ambulance, that's okay too."
"Honey, you're in good hands. Hank says that Roy and Johnny are the best paramedics in the County," Karen said. "Maybe even the best in the state. Do you want me to call Edmund? Have him meet you at the hospital?"
Gage looked up suddenly, looked straight at Karen with a deer-in-the-headlights look that came and went quickly as he connected the dots. And then he blushed and focused his attention entirely on attaching cardiac leads and fussing with the monitor. Roy was pretty sure Johnny had just realized exactly whose legs he'd been checking out.
The whine of the approaching ambulance's siren drowned out whatever Rampart was instructing over the bio phone but Gage grabbed for the IV setup.
"Ringer's, TKO," he said, as he swabbed Jackie's left arm below the BP cuff.
Roy didn't recognize the Sheriff's Deputy who was talking to Jerry and a few other women at the other end of the tennis courts. The Deputy tucked a bag, presumably Jackie's, under his arm and started writing on his note pad.
Karen stepped back as they loaded Jackie onto the ambulance but Roy felt her seeking eyes on him, looking for reassurance. Feeling awkward and unusually uncomfortable, he pretended he didn't notice as he climbed into the ambulance, keeping his focus on his patient's breathing instead.
She kept breathing the entire five-minute ride to the hospital, breaths a little deeper and more regular, the panic fading from her tight features, while Roy gave Morton updated vitals every two minutes, trying not to hold his own breath or to show his increasing concern.
He'd delivered her safely, alive and breathing, so she was officially Mike Morton's patient when she suffered the MI five minutes after Roy, Morton, Carol and the Mayfair attendant lifted her onto to the bed in Exam Room 3.
Johnny had offered to drive, but he'd declined, mostly out of habit.
"Wasn't anything more you could've done, Roy."
He knew that. He'd run it over and over in his head and he knew with clinical detachment that he had performed his job perfectly. Just as he had that morning, on a man who he'd known had had little to no chance of surviving the MVA injuries. Just as Johnny had that morning on that little girl who'd been rushed to surgery almost as soon as Brackett had finished examining her.
It would've been nice to turn on a radio, listen to a little music right now. He couldn't count on Johnny for distraction or entertainment when they were both in need of it.
"Oh yeah," Gage said, snapping his fingers. "Before I forget, Mrs. Stanley told me to tell you to have Joanne call her about that substitute thing." He was still staring out the open passenger window. "Whatever that means."
He nodded and made a mental note to call his wife when they got back to the station, which might actually be in time for dinner. Whether or not there was actual food prepared would depend on when or if the Engine had been released from the scene at the Nursing School fire.
"You ever wonder…" Gage trailed off and then heaved a great sigh. "Never mind."
Pretty much anything that would take him away from the scared look in Jackie's eyes would be welcome right now, no matter how inane.
"Never mind," Gage gave himself a shake, both physical and mental and turned back to his partner. "So what substitute thing? And man, why didn't you warn me that was Cap's wife?"
It was only about thirty or forty minutes ago that they'd passed over Harbor Freeway and now it was a solid block of massed cars inching forward at about twenty mph at best. It seemed like a lot more time had passed.
"If you'd been looking at her face, you might have remembered meeting her, oh, I don't know, about twenty or thirty times, maybe more."
"Yeah, ha ha, get a good laugh in," Gage said. "I was kneeling, remember."
"Uh-huh," Roy said. "Well, you can tell that to Cap when he asks why you were checking out his wife's legs. Again."
"Roy," Gage sputtered. "Man, that's uncalled for. That was….It was just that once and it was like four years ago, right after Cap came to 51s and you know I didn't know who she was then."
They passed Veteran's Park without comment though he noticed Gage craning his head as if he could see the tennis courts from W.223rd Street, which he couldn't.
"I was thinking that maybe I should take tennis lessons."
Roy started coughing, trying to hide his laughter, and wondered for a moment why he'd ever missed having a radio at all.
Chapter 3: Chemistry
It was a science, no different than chemistry. It was just a matter of understanding the interaction of chemicals and knowing the appropriate catalyst. In this case he was using ingredients instead of chemicals and the catalyst was heat. He was sure that this combination of ingredients at a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit would work. His mother swore by it and as he understood basic chemistry at an intuitive level, it was simply a matter of application.
The question was entirely innocuous, but they both knew better.
"I'm pretty sure this'll be the recipe that works, Cap."
Stanley nodded and returned his attention to the equipment manifest that he'd spread across his corner of the kitchen table.
"Pay attention here, Mike. You'll be dealing with this stuff one day soon."
Stoker hid his grimace as he mashed the potatoes by hand. The more he saw the actualities of a Captain's job, the less appealing it seemed.
Marco leaned in through the kitchen door. "Sorry, Cap. We definitely left it on scene. I looked for it during overhaul and clean up but it must have been buried under the debris."
Stanley sighed heavily and rested his jaw in his right palm, staring glumly at the manifest.
"Headquarters on your case?"
"That pencil pusher at HQ actually had the audacity to tell me that if we left one more porta power on scene, however valid the reason, the County was going to start taking it out of my paycheck."
"No way," Marco breathed. "We could head back there right now…"
"Appreciate that, Marco, but it won't be necessary." Stanley spared Marco a quick smile. "I told the supply guy that I'd be happy to have him ride along, have him help us dig it out from under the foundation that gave way. I'll let him know that my offer still stands."
Marco snickered and went back to cleaning and checking the equipment that they'd used at the Nursing School fire. Chet was supposed to be checking their air bottles and refilling those below full from the station air compressor.
And speaking of Chet…was that singing?
He turned and exchanged glances with Stanley who'd raised his head in disbelief.
Chet singing was only slightly better than Chet yammering, as he'd been doing since the Squad backed into the bay about twenty minutes earlier. From the hum of voices, it sounded as if Gage & DeSoto had lingered there, which was just asking for trouble since Chet was undoubtedly looking for something to distract him from his assigned tasks.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot…"
"Kelly, check the calendar," Stanley said in a voice loud enough to be clearly heard in the bay. "It's brushfire season, not the holiday season."
"Sorry, Cap," Chet said, as he popped through the kitchen door. "I was just reminding Gage of those immortal words of wisdom from that great Irish poet, 'The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry' and I got a little carried away."
Or perhaps carried awry, Stoker thought and smiled down at the potatoes.
Stanley leaned back in his chair and sighed. "Scottish poet. And it was schemes, not plans."
Chet scratched the back of his head and crinkled his nose. "You sure about that, Cap? Blood calls to blood, you know, and I recognize the ancestral genius of a fellow Irishman…"
"Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland. And you were born in Chicago, not Ireland, which makes you an American with Irish ancestry, not an Irishman. Now knock off your poetry recitation and get busy. I want every air bottle on the Engine checked."
Kelly mumbled something that sounded like "Sasanach" as he shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and ambled back towards the Engine, in no apparent hurry. "That explains it, of course. Burns being a fellow Celt…."
"And don't forget to check the hydro test dates," Stanley called after Chet.
Gage pushed past Chet impatiently in the doorway, calling a distracted greeting to Captain Stanley before opening the oven for a sniff. He turned frowning toward the refrigerator and stuck his head almost completely inside. DeSoto wandered in and stood, looking somewhat hesitant, near the table.
"You got a minute, Cap?"
Stanley looked happy to have any reason to close the books on his paperwork. "Sure, Roy. Have a seat."
Roy nodded and after taking a seat, leaned forward and spoke softly enough that Stoker couldn't make out a single syllable. He could see Stanley looking thoughtful and then nodding pensively.
"Yeah, okay. Thanks for letting me know." He glanced at his wristwatch. "She should be home now. I'll give her a call."
He gathered all his paperwork and tucked in under his arm.
"Ten minutes," Stoker called after him as he left the kitchen. Then he turned expectantly towards DeSoto with raised eyebrows.
"We ran into Cap's wife on our last call," Gage said as he poured himself a glass of milk. "Bystander, not the person who needed help."
"Friend of the patient," DeSoto corrected, sagging back into the chair.
"Everything go okay?" Stoker asked as he stirred the vegetables. Frozen succotash mix, cooked with a little water over heat was supposed to be hard to mess up but somehow they'd managed it a few times.
"MI at Rampart," Gage said.
"Cardiac Care Unit," Roy added.
His tone said 'doesn't look good.'
Stoker sighed. "Crap."
That news was bad enough on its own but the cases where they knew the victim or knew someone who knew the victim were worse by a factor of ten, maybe more. And since Cap's wife was a friend of the victim's, she'd be upset and who knew what that would do for Cap's mood the rest of the shift. A shift they weren't even halfway through.
Nice job, Mike, he thought. Very compassionate. He hit the potatoes a little harder than necessary when he mixed in the butter.
And okay, so it turned out that this wasn't the recipe that worked. It wasn't the one that tasted like the meatloaf he recalled liking so much, but no one complained, not aloud anyway. The mashed potatoes were popular, the succotash was not mushy or overcooked and since there were no leftovers, he considered the meal a qualified success. He was beginning to wonder about Platonic ideals and whether they applied to meal planning.
Cap was heads down focused on his dinner, his usual quiet self during any meal, but smiled and leaned back in his chair when he'd finished. And if his "Great dinner, Mike," sounded a little less enthusiastic than usual, well, he couldn't really be sure whether it was the mediocre meatloaf or an upset wife that was to blame.
Gage had dishes and Roy helped, which was fairly normal for the two of them.
Slopping soapy water as he scrubbed at the pot in which Mike had boiled the potatoes, Gage seemed to have a sudden thought and twisted his head to the right. "Hey, Roy, did you remember to call Joanne?"
Roy hesitated as he dried the vegetables pot and surprisingly glanced at Cap, who'd hauled out his paperwork again and sat at the kitchen table, head bowed, as he read some report. On the other side of the table, Mike doodled in the margin of the newspaper and pretended to be studying the crossword puzzle that someone had started and then abandoned half-done. At least whoever had done so had used a pencil so he could correct the errors he saw. He erased 'later' and penciled in 'adieu' for 9 down: parting word.
"Yeah," Roy said and rubbed a bit harder at the pot, frowning as he picked with a thumbnail at a small bit of lima bean that hadn't come away in the washing. "Yeah, I called her before dinner."
A loud splash as Gage dunked the big pot back into the soapy water.
Roy's mouth twitched and he shot another glance at Cap before shrugging. "I passed on the message and said maybe tonight wasn't the best time to call."
"Uh-huh." And then Gage looked up and made a face as if he'd just heard Roy's reply. "Yeah, okay." He began rinsing the pan. "You're probably right about that." And then Gage frowned and glanced at Cap too. "Bad timing, I guess. I should probably wait too."
Mike jiggled the pencil between his fingers and scowled at the puzzle. 12 Across: Not Gregarious. Seven characters.
"You know you could talk to Mike," Roy suggested in a quiet tone that probably would not have been overheard had he not spoken during a rare moment of silence as the television station switched from a commercial back to the program. Even Chet and Marco looked up and a flicker of eyes across the table indicated that maybe Cap wasn't as engrossed in his report as Mike had thought.
He was aware of Gage and DeSoto looking in his direction and he couldn't really pretend he hadn't heard. After all, it wasn't eavesdropping if everyone had heard Roy.
"Talk to me about what?"
Gage shifted his weight onto his right leg and twisted the dishrag until he'd wrung it dry. Then he turned around and leaned back against the sink and his face contorted into a parade of expressions.
Stoker sat back in his seat, content to watch the always amusing visual display of John Gage working through his thoughts and was almost disappointed when Roy snapped the towel and hit Gage in the left arm.
"Oww!" Gage turned and glared at his partner. "I'm gettin' to it! Jeez, give me a chance."
Roy sighed heavily and then picked up the big potato pot to begin drying it.
"There's a girl," he said, with a jerk of his head towards Gage, "and she's got him twisted about having a…"
"It's not about the girl, Roy," Gage insisted. "But you know, she kind of had a point about the… you know… plan." Warming to his subject, Gage leaned back against the sink again and faced Stoker. "So I was thinking about guys I knew who had a plan, who'd figured out what they wanted, you know, had an objective and got it, or were working their way toward it."
Mike stretched his legs out but continued to play with the pencil, because it gave him something to do while he tried to figure out exactly where Gage was going with this, and because it was kind of fun. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Stanley turn a little in his seat, so he could divide his attention between the report he was supposedly reading and his paramedic team to his left.
"So, you know I've wanted to be a firefighter since about forever and then when Roy talked me into the Paramedic thing…"
"I didn't talk you into," Roy objected. "You came to the information session of your own volition…"
"Yeah, me and about zero other guys," Gage said with an exaggerated eye roll. "As I was saying…"
He paused and shot his partner a look. Roy bowed and his sweeping hand gesture clearly indicated that Gage should continue.
"So after Roy talked me into the Paramedic thing, I knew that's what I wanted to do but it wasn't as if I knew that ahead of time. It just came along at the right time, you know?"
He paused again and since he was so clearly expecting some kind of acknowledgement, Stoker nodded.
"So, what I was wondering, was how you knew?"
Stoker blinked. He thought over the question again but still didn't really understand what Gage was asking him. He slid his gaze over to Stanley whose expression clearly said 'I don't know what the hell he's talking about either.'
"How did I know what?" he said.
"How you knew you wanted to be an Engineer?" Gage said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "You know, before you became one, or before you took the Engineer's exam. You must have had a plan or something, right?"
Stoker blinked. Gage wanted career counseling? From him?
"You know, Cap's probably the guy you want to talk to if you're looking for career advice."
"Well…" Gage hesitated, shifted his weight a little. "I was going to, but…"
Shit, Stoker realized. That's what Gage meant earlier about 'bad timing.'
"I'm not really looking for career counseling, you know. Just wondering how it was that you knew that being an Engineer was what you wanted to do."
And now Cap's eyes were glittering with amusement. He probably thought this was good practice, since of course in his mind, it was only a matter of time before Mike Stoker was a Captain one day and would need to provide some kind of guidance to his own men. Great. Thanks a lot, Cap.
The truth - 'I just did' - was just going to frustrate Gage so Stoker thought about it, thought hard about what it had been like to be a lineman at Station 29, with an Engine, Truck and Squad, hauling hose where and when his Captain told him, eating smoke, ventilating roofs, and getting up close and personal with the heat of a fire and going home with steam burns and blisters.
What he remembered most clearly was that he wanted to fight fires smarter. He'd decided that any firefighter could be the guy on the hose and sure, some had an instinct for it, almost a communion with fire itself and it was as if those guys could predict its behavior and move to counteract it in some kind of weird ballet, but he didn't have that instinct. What he did have was the brains to outthink it. Plus being a lineman just didn't give you the perspective to watch the total fire response, watch how the Incident Commander deployed the responding companies and be a conscious part of that response. And of course, there was the equipment; both the responsibility for making sure everything was working and the responsibility for making sure the crew had what it needed when it needed it.
"You know," he said finally, "it was probably not a lot different from why you decided to be a paramedic. I liked firefighting, but I wanted to do something more, so I watched what our Engineers at 29s did. It looked interesting and I wanted to learn more about it so they showed me."
There was silence then, as if Gage was waiting for him to say something more, give him a roadmap to coming up with a plan for his own life.
"And of course, he gets to drive the Engine," Chet said.
There was that, Mike acknowledged, with a shrug.
"Yeah, that too."
A/N: Sasanach is the Irish variant of Scottish word 'Sassenach,' a not always friendly word for 'Englishman ' and since Henry Stanley is very English name, that was a bit of a diss from Chet to his Captain.
Chapter 4: Heading in
It was an unwritten law, a universal law acknowledged by fireman everywhere that if a television show was an hour long, somewhere around forty-five minutes into the show was when the tones would sound. Same thing for a movie. The movie could be ninety minutes, could be two hours, either way, fifteen to twenty minutes before it ended and almost always during the incredibly tense scenes leading up to the climatic resolution of the plot, they'd get called out.
He was working on a corollary to this law, though he hadn't yet proposed it to the guys. Inevitably, when the television show was truly exciting and they had no idea how the heroes would escape whatever dire situation they faced, the call would be an alarm panel activation or a false alarm or something else equally lame and pointless. He was going to call it the Kelly Inverse Proportions Corollary, which should set Gage off for no other reason than it would bug him that there was a universal law named after Chester B. Kelly.
This one was definitely not a false alarm, but since he hadn't quite figured out the relationship between movies that he hadn't particularly wanted to watch in the first place but got outvoted on and their resulting dispatch, he'd have to categorize this as requiring more research.
He rested his gloved hand on the metal banister and felt the vibrations of the slatted metal stair tread jolt up through his boots.
It was like being inside a concrete fort. He'd noticed the old-fashioned yellow and black 'Fallout Shelter' metal placard affixed to the front of the building, just to the left of the entrance. One of the Pac Tel guys hanging around by the Chief had said, 'The only thing left after a nuclear explosion will be cockroaches and central offices,' and the other Pac Tel guys had laughed, but not as if it was funny, more like it was an old, inside joke.
Cap had gone up the metal staircase first, testing the weight of each step, the beam from his handheld flashlight a jerky thing bouncing almost erratically through the smoke-filled darkness. If it held for Cap, and there was no reason it shouldn't hold, then it would be fine for Marco and for him, each a little lighter than the prior man.
The nicer stairs, the ones made from poured concrete embedded with nonslip treads, the ones that would survive nuclear fallout if the Pac Tel guy was right, were at the front of the building. Of course that was also where the fire was most heavily concentrated which was why they were at the back of the building, in the northwest corner, climbing up metal stairs that shook under his relatively light body weight. The fire hadn't reached the third floor back here, not yet anyway, but the guys from 36s had said the cable vault in the basement was something out of Dante's circles of hell and the offices on the first floor were pretty well involved too.
He kept his right hand on the banister, groping ahead with his boot toe for the next step, shifting his weight carefully onto his right foot before taking his left foot off the previous step. And then there were no more steps, and he used his hand on the banister as guide, navigating around the far edge of the intermediate landing, shuffling his boots against the bumpy metal flooring until the toes of his left boot collided against the lip of the landing and pushed into the small gap between it and the first step to the next set of stairs.
He waited there, staring up into the dense blackness, only some of which was smoke, actively listening to pick out what he could hear above the hiss of his own breaths inside the mask. A heavy clang that he both heard and felt echoing under his feet meant that Marco was still climbing the stairs from the landing to the fourth floor. Cap had said one man at a time, on each set of stairs, just in case.
"You know, Cap. Just for future reference, let's see if we can do these Search and Rescue things during daylight hours in the future, okay?"
Cap was probably only about fifteen feet above him but his voice sounded a lot farther away.
"I'll see what I can arrange."
There was another vibration under his feet from Marco a few feet ahead of him, and then he heard something new. It sounded a little like the whale sounds he'd heard piped through a talk at the Aquarium, a kind of deep, groaning wail, which, when accompanied with the slight sway of the metal landing under his feet….
"Let's get off these stairs, guys," Cap called from above.
He shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, as the landing seemed to gently shift. It was a very slight movement, no worse than the rocking of a boat in quiet waters but considering the amount of steel and concrete that was supposed to be holding it up… Actually, he didn't really want to think about the steel and the concrete, or the fact that this staircase probably ran all the way up to the roof because it started in the basement, the same place the fire had started.
"Stairs are getting hotter, Cap," he said. So was the landing, and the railing.
"All right, Lopez is just about up…"
Chet heard a clang and then a grunt from his Captain.
"He's up. Let's make it quick, Kelly. Floor up here is nice and solid."
It would have been handy to use the round metal banister as a grip to pull himself up instead of just as a guide but it was too hot to hold more than just loosely, even with his glove. He tapped the stairs ahead of him with the short pike pole like a blind man's cane - since he was carrying it, might as well get some use of it – and scrambled up the stairs as quickly as possible. Near the top, he couldn't see them but he could make out the sounds of Cap and Marco breathing through their masks and then their hands wrapped around his upper arms and pulled him on to the fourth floor.
Cap stood and walked towards the windows to check in with the IC. Thank God, this was one of the floors that had windows, or at least this side did. The street lights and the light truck outside were putting out enough lumens that though it would never be mistaken for daylight, the guys outside could see what they were doing. Some of that light poured through the dirty narrow windows here, just enough to pick out Cap's outline in hazy gray light, but it was better than the constant darkness they'd been operating in since they'd entered the building.
The third floor had been an equipment floor, walls solid concrete unbroken by a single window, and filled floor to two-story high ceiling with tall and endlessly long steel racks. Each rack was overflowing with sheathed copper wire coming up in massive cable bundles from the basement, and then stripped out individually so that each wire connected to one tiny piece of equipment on one of the rack shelves and then connected to another piece of copper wire that was going somewhere else in the building. Cross-connections, Marco had called it.
It had been a bitch to search in the dark, up and down the aisles, using flashlight beams to pick out the hazards as the thick, heavy smoke continued to pour up the internal building cable conduits from the fire in the basement and lower levels. He'd walked into at least one of the stepladders on wheels, presumably used to access shelves higher on the rack but the hand lights had kept him from tripping over any of the wrapped bundles of copper wire running along the base of the tall racks.
"Battalion 14, this is HT 51." Cap paused and waited for the Chief's acknowledgment. "The third floor is clear. We are beginning search of the fourth floor. Be advised that the northwest staircase is now unstable and unsafe for egress." He took his thumb off the HT. "Lopez, Kelly, check the standpipe."
It had been a little weird not dragging a charged line or carrying a hose pack into the fire, but so far the wet standpipe system seemed to be fully operational. They made their way into the hallway, using their flashlights to pick their way to the glass fronted hose cabinet. Chet kept his light on task as Marco opened the hose cabinet, tugged out the one-inch hose and nozzle, and opened the valve to check water flow.
It was designed for building tenants, not firefighters, so it wasn't the strongest flow rate, but it was pressurized and better than anything that they'd have gotten from a hose wrapped around four unusually tall flights of stairs. And his shoulders appreciated not having to haul the hose.
Cap joined them in the hall, backlit by the light truck outside just enough that Chet could make out the 100-ft. of rope Cap wore draped over his turnout coat.
"Okay, first thing's first: there's another staircase in the southwest corner, same construction as the one we just came up and possibly the same problems, so we'll check it out when we search that area. We've got a telephone company switch taking up the entire south-side of this building," he used the axe in his right hand, blade turned down, to point in the direction away from where they'd entered. "More equipment rooms across the east and west sides and office space on the north. We'll start there. Lopez, give Kelly the halligan; you've got the line."
Chapter 5: Backup
Gunshot victims were the worst, especially when they were probably very nice people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the very possible worst time. Very nice people with incredibly bad timing, like a couple of college students who left a party to buy some more beer and walked into the middle of an armed robbery.
And they bled a lot, especially when the bullet damaged a major blood vessel.
And for a change, it wasn't the girl doing all the crying this time; it was the boyfriend because they were trying to keep the girl from dying. Successfully as it turned out. They'd hauled ass to Rampart with two large bore IVs of lactated Ringer's running wide open, both he and Roy working on her the entire trip. Brackett never looked happy when they brought him a patient in this condition but she was still alive when he took her up to surgery, which was way better than either of them had thought it would go.
It wasn't the worst call of the shift – and damn, he knew better to even think something like that when the shift still had almost ten hours left in it - but it sure was the messiest so far.
Roy was quiet, well quieter than usual, as they scrubbed the blood from under their fingernails in the men's room at Rampart. Even with the institutional soap that he'd swear doubled as a paint stripper, there was still a tint to his fingernails that just wasn't washing away.
"You want to get some coffee or try to catch a ride back to the Squad?" Roy finally said after five full minutes of silence.
Gage exhaled hard, thinking, thinking, thinking; still studying his fingernails.
"Coffee, then catch a ride."
Roy was using a paper towel to try to blot the blood from his shirt but was just spreading the reddish-brown tinted blot onto a larger patch of blue. They were both definitely going to have to soak their uniforms when they got back to the Station.
"We might get lucky. Scotty probably needs to get some information for his report."
They were and he did.
Even luckier, they'd managed to sit on the couch in the staff lounge for almost ten whole minutes drinking coffee and doing absolutely nothing while Scotty finished getting the information from the boyfriend that he hadn't obtained at the scene. In contrast to the Emergency Room outside, the staff lounge was a little oasis of calm. It seemed everyone was too busy working to take a break and Gage enjoyed the chance to get his head out of the last run and into the here and now. It also gave him a few moments to try to remember how many clean uniform shirts he had in his locker as he watched his partner pick at the dirty red-brown stain on his left sleeve.
"Hydrogen Peroxide will get that stain out, you know," Dixie said as she came in for a quick jolt of caffeine.
"Yeah, but will it get us a ride back to our vehicle?" he said, stretching tired shoulder and arm muscles. "You working nights these days, Dix?"
"Seems that way," she said with a smile before heading back into the controlled chaos of the Emergency Room.
Gage squinted after her and then turned to his partner and opened his mouth.
"Don't ask," Roy said before he got a word out. "If she wanted to be clear, she would have been clear."
"He's right," Scotty said from the doorway, all creaking leather holster and authority. "You guys ready to go?"
"Oh yeah," he said, suddenly restless and anxious to get back to the Squad. "Night's still young. Lots of people doing stupid things that'll earn them a visit from us yet to come."
Roy elbowed him in the ribs and gave him a 'look' as they followed Scotty from the lounge.
The Squad was still sitting, intact and apparently unbothered in the parking lot adjacent to the liquor store that had been robbed. Before they'd left, they'd hurriedly packed up the equipment they didn’t need for the ride in and Scotty had made sure the Squad was secure before he'd made his way to Rampart. Still and all, they checked it over; partly because of the worry of a Charlie ass kicking if it had been damaged in any way and partly the worry that someone had ripped off some essential piece of equipment while the Squad had been left locked up, but otherwise untended.
The liquor store had closed for the night after the robbery attempt and the parking lot was dark, only a few scattered cars parked near to the all night Laundromat.
Roy started the engine, let out a quiet sigh of relief and then reached for the radio handset. "LA, Squad 51 available."
There was a delay in Dispatch's response, not terribly long but just long enough that their eyes met in silent 'oh shit' communication.
"Squad 51, assist Station 36 at their incident. Pacific Telephone Company building at S. Main and West Lomita. Pacific Telephone Company building at S. Main and West Lomita. Time out 2245."
Roy confirmed and Johnny didn't even try to hide the sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew that address. He knew that location. He knew people who worked at that location.
"Roy, that place is full of electrical equipment…"
"Yeah," Roy agreed as he activated the Squad's lights and siren.
"…and insulated copper cable, and you know what that's like when it burns."
"PVC wrapped," Roy said, eyes straight ahead. "Which'll turn into chlorine, among other things, when it burns. If there's a fire, I'll be glad we refilled all our bottles earlier."
"If there's a…."Gage trailed off and considered his partner's point. "Well, okay, you're right. He didn't actually say…"
If he'd thought he'd lost that point, it was moot the second they turned from W. Sepulveda onto S. Main St. Even at a distance, they could clearly see the light truck, the confluence of LA County FD apparatuses, the blur of rotating red lights and the smoke.
"Well, shit," he said quietly.
"You said it, partner," Roy agreed, just as quietly.
On the other side of the throng of Engines and Trucks, the intersection of S. Main and W. Lomita was almost completely shut down. Through the red glare of LA County FD and law enforcement vehicle lights, Gage thought he saw the two southern lanes on W. Lomita moving slowly, directed by a phalanx of police officers. He counted the Engines that he could see, and the Trucks and the Squads.
"Who's here?" Roy asked
"Squad 51, Battalion 14," squawked over the radio and Gage grabbed for it.
"Squad 51," he acknowledged, leaning forward and squinting through the windshield, wondering if there was anyone inside, wondering if any of the guys he knew from the bowling league worked the evening shift. Now that they'd cleared the outer police-enforced perimeter, he could see the flames leaping angrily from the doors and windows of the first floor and the front of the second floor of that little fortress of a building. A tangle of hoses led directly into the main entrance on S. Main. Engine and truck companies ringed the building streaming water at it and a Light Truck was set up just inside the entrance to the parking lot on their right.
"Squad 51, set up a triage area in the Northwest quadrant, rear parking lot near Engine 51 and stand by for further assignment."
He saw Roy frown. 'Further assignment' probably meant search and rescue. He hoped like hell there were no employees still inside that building breathing in that smoke.
Roy turned into the parking lot and carefully navigated through the Engines and Trucks parked in what might seem a haphazard fashion but which were actually positioned in a way that made sense to him. Most of the time.
"Squads 22 and 28 are here," Gage said. Squad 36 was presumably there too, but he didn't see them.
The drove past both Squads - the doors for all of the compartments on both were wide open but he didn't see any of the paramedics – and found an open spot near their own Engine three-quarters the way towards the back of the parking lot.
It was a little smoky when he climbed out of the Squad. He took a cautious sniff, waiting for an irritation that didn't come and then grabbed his turnout coat from the compartment and with Roy, begin spreading a yellow blanket and arranging their equipment. Then he took a good look around.
To his left, Station 28's Engine and Truck seemed to be working the northeast corner of the building. They'd passed Engine 38 on the way in and its crew was working the midpoint of the building with a 2.5" hitting the first floor. Truck 86 was covering the northwest corner, with a master stream hitting the flames on the second floor. And Engine 51…
He looked at the charged lines running from Engine 51 and followed them with his eyes to a group of firefighters in the distance, none of whom worked on 51's A shift.
"Yeah," Roy agreed, as he tightened his chinstrap. "Let's go find out."
They jogged the short distance to Mike Stoker, who was standing with one hand resting on the panel, the other hand holding a HT, gaze moving from the gauges to the firefighters at the other end of the lines to the burning central office building.
"Hey, Mike, what’s the story? Is everyone out? And, hey…” He glanced around the scene for emphasis. “Where's the rest of our Engine crew?"
He said it nice and casually but Stoker scowled and looked away, back toward the building.
And just about when he was getting warmed up for a couple of probing questions and maybe, just maybe, some color commentary, the HT in Stoker's hand crackled to life and a familiar, slightly nasal voice stopped him before the first word left his already opened mouth.
"Battalion 14, this is HT 51."
"Go ahead, HT 51," Chief Miller said almost immediately.
"The third floor is clear. We are beginning search of the fourth floor. Be advised that the northwest staircase is now unstable and unsafe for egress."
Stoker swore – a nice, quietly intense "Damn" – but it carried a lot more impact from Stoker than it would from anyone else. Gage looked at him and then at Roy, feeling uncomfortably like he was missing key information.
"10-4, 51. Alternate points of egress are the staircase in the southwest corner or aerial ladder. Trucks 86 and 28 are available on the north side of the building, Trucks 31 and 106, the west. Maintain radio check-in every five minutes."
"10-4. HT 51 out."
Well, that was… Gage turned back to Stoker.
"Are there civilians still in there?" Roy asked.
Roy sounded worried, but it wasn't clear if he was worried about possible trapped employees, worried about Engine 51's crew already inside searching for someone, or worried about having to conduct an additional Search and Rescue mission. Of course, since it was Roy, he was probably worrying about all three at the same time.
"The evening shift's out," Stoker said. "Fire started in the cable vault. One of the employees tried to put it out." His shrug at the flames conveyed his opinion of that effort. "36s was first on scene, went right in but by that time the whole basement was involved." He scowled their shared opinion of basement fires. "By the time we got here as part of the second alarm, the fire had already spread through the cable risers to the first floor."
"So all the employees are out?" Gage asked, trying to remember if he actually knew the shifts that Cleveland and Renner worked.
"They are now. The guy who tried to put out the fire ended up with second-degree burns; 28's paramedics took him in. The guys from Squad 36 ate a little too much smoke getting two other Telco guys out and ended up taking themselves and their patients in to Rampart. 22s got here when we did, and their Squad went in after a missing employee on the third floor. Ferrara brought him out with pretty bad smoke inhalation."
"Wait," Gage said, waving a hand to stop the Stoker version of a briefing. "You said Ferrara brought him out. Not Kelleher and Ferrara brought him out."
"Kind of my point, Johnny." Stoker's face once again set in grim lines. "They got separated inside. Ferrara said it was like a huge maze, lots of racks, pitch black and easy to get lost in there. Plus the Pac Tel guys weren't sure if the missing guy was in the frame on the third floor or in the switch on the fourth floor."
His heart starting thumping a little harder than usual and he took a steadying breath. "So where's Kelleher?"
Stoker's face twitched and he shook his head.
"Don't know. Ferrara went straight to his Cap, told him that he'd lost contact with Kelleher inside. They both had HTs but Kelleher wasn't answering and the guy Ferrara found was in respiratory distress, so he had to get him out right away. Captain Wozniak told Ferrara to take the vic to Rampart and got the okay from the Chief to take a search team inside."
Stoker took a deep breath and Gage knew he wasn't going to like what was coming, and based on the way Roy's shoulders sagged, he knew it too.
"They went in, reported in a few times while they were searching the third floor and then they went silent. No radio contact."
"How long ago?" Roy asked.
He noticed Roy starting to pat his pockets to check that he had all his gear, which was a part of his normal routine to mentally and physically prepare himself to go inside. Assuming the Chief gave them the order. Gage started checking his own pockets.
"A bit over twenty minutes since they lost contact," Stoker said quietly enough that they almost didn't hear him.
Gage mouthed the word 'shit' this time, for emphasis, but Roy's expression froze and then started to shift from grim determination to alarm.
"Don't tell me," Roy said.
"Yeah," Stoker said. "They are."
"How long ago?" Roy asked again.
Now he was completely lost.
"About fifteen minutes," Stoker said. "They've cleared the third floor so the guys from 22s have to be on four."
It came together in his head with an accompanying buzzing sound, and Gage dropped his face into his hands.
"Shit," he said, voice partially muffled. "Thirty Rescue Squads in the county and we're sending our engine crews on Search and Rescue."
He felt rather than actually saw the hard look from Stoker and as he raised his head, he saw Roy shaking his head, lips pressed into a flat line.
"Okay," he raised his hands in supplication. "That totally came out wrong. You know that if it was me or Roy in there, there's no one I'd want coming in more than Cap and you guys, right? You know that, Mike." It wasn't flying. "Oh, come on, you do so know that. You guys have saved my ass more times than I really like to think about. I'm just wondering why the county didn't call in more squads."
"Cap took Chet and Marco inside, right?" Roy said quietly." Who did 22's Captain take in with him?"
"Ostrander and van der Heijden," Stoker said. "I know. Four guys from 22s, including Kelleher, and three guys from 51s doesn't add but that's what was available and the plan was that Ferrara or the guys from 28s would be back around now. We already had three squads on scene and from what Cap said, all the other squads in the whole area were tied up on calls, including you guys."
"Well, we're here now," Roy said flatly. "We can meet them on the fourth floor. Search'll go faster with five of us."
"Cap said the staircase was unsafe for egress," Stoker countered. "That means it's unsafe for access too. The Chief told you to set up a triage station and stand by for further assignment. You stand by."
Roy turned toward the building and just looked at it. Gage did too and then spun back to Stoker.
"What's their exit strategy? Now that the staircase is out, how are they getting out of there when they find the guys from 22s, or if it goes bad? The truck companies?"
"You heard the Chief," Stoker said. "There's a staircase in the southwest corner, a Snorkel on the south side, Ladder Trucks on the rest." He shifted his jaw. "The backup is the roof if they need it and they've got ropes, of course."
Gage studied the building, the odd arrangements of windows and the long span of concrete between the second and fourth floors without a hint of glass. Ropes weren't much help if you couldn't actually get out through some point of egress and axes weren't going to cut one in a concrete wall.
"Okay," Roy said. "Cap's going to need us to be set up down here. Probably a safe bet 22s has some injuries. Let's get the Stokes ready in case they have someone who can't be helped down the stairs or ladders. O2, compresses, splints, anything he might call for."
"Air bottles," Stoker said. "Our guys should still be good but 22's has to be sucking fumes and Kelleher is probably completely out."
"22s and 28s should have some we could borrow," Gage said. "I'll get 'em."
Running to the other squads was a good excuse to burn off a little nervous energy. Being on scene at a major fire and waiting was not something that he did well. Either send me in or give me someone to treat, he thought and then gave himself a mental slap. Okay, give me something to do, he revised; sounds like there have been plenty of people that needed help already.
Squad 22 had two full spare bottles and so did Squad 28, but he left those alone because Shafer and DeAngelo were probably on their way back from Rampart and might need them. Instead, he placed Squad 22's bottles in the triage area and ran over to Engine 22 to chat up their Engineer.
Bobby Harrison, like most Engineers he'd met in his career, was watching everything and had already figured out what Gage was doing. He had a spare bottle waiting for him.
"Get my guys out of there," Harrison said, the tendons in his neck practically vibrating.
"We will, Bobby," he said. Twenty minutes inside without any word, inside this fire, was not a good thing. "Our guys will find them and get them out of there and Roy and I will take good care of them. I promise."
With the three bottles he'd borrowed, plus one from the back of Squad 51, they had everyone covered. At least until an unsmiling Roy told him to put their spare back.
"Johnny, who knows how long we'll be here or whether we'll need to go inside. We're going to need our own backups."
"That leaves us short," he protested. "We've got seven guys in there, Roy, at least four who are either out or running out of air. We need four bottles. You or I can always borrow one from 28s if we need it."
Roy gave in and sent a worried look towards the burning building and then glanced at his wristwatch.
"They're two minutes past check-in," he said, lifting his own HT to check that it was still on the right channel.
"Two minutes, Roy," he said with an impatient exhale. "You know what it's like when you're inside searching, focused on what you're doing; you lose track of time. Plus, it's pitch black and smoky in there, which makes it even more of a hassle to read a watch. They're fine, they're just busy."
Right about now would be a good time for Cap to chime in on the HT and prove him right.
Chapter 6: Triage
It was endlessly long wait; fidget-filled minutes spent listening to communications between the various companies on scene come across the HT. His free-floating anxiety was only mildly distracted when a Mayfair ambulance arrived on scene, but ten seconds later, when Steve Ferrara climbed out the back of Mayfair, he was good and distracted.
Ferrara's head swiveled back and forth, gaze slowly sweeping the entire scene, and then he headed straight for Bobby Harrison at Engine 22, pace increasing until he was trotting and then jogging.
They were too far away for Roy to make out any of the words and Steve Ferrara was one of the more soft-spoken guys he'd ever known, so he contented himself with keeping a worried eye on 22's paramedic. If he were in Ferrara's shoes, his stomach would be a churning mess of snakes, writhing around and poisoning him from the inside. Maybe it was a good thing that the trip to and from Rampart with his smoke inhalation patient had taken so long.
"What do you mean they're still inside?"
Huh, Roy thought. For someone who you sometimes had to really listen hard to hear, Ferrara could project when he wanted to. Or needed to.
Harrison was waving his arms in the air, gesturing at the building, gesturing at Engine 51 and then he grabbed Ferrara's left shoulder and held on to it for a few minutes while he talked, and then talked some more. Ferrara listened, narrow face frozen, blindly nodding at whatever Harrison was saying. And then when Harrison finished saying what he had to say, or maybe just ran out of words, Ferrara looked around, spotted the very obvious triage area and headed straight towards it.
"How bad is it?" Ferrara finally said, voice raspy and terse, looking at the building instead of at Roy.
"I don't know, Steve. Our Engine crew is in there looking for them, but they're over five minutes past their scheduled check-in." He held up his HT. "To tell you the truth, I got a knot in my stomach too."
Ferrara took a deep breath and then sighed it all out, nodding as he did so and some life came back into his eyes.
"What can I do?"
It sounded to Roy's ears an awful lot like 'Give me something to do.'
A burst of static from the HT caught their attention. Silence. And then another burst of static.
Static, static, static….
"….alion 14, HT 51. Do you copy?"
Definitely Cap, and he was machine-gunning his words in that rapid, very clipped tone of voice he used when things were hopping. Roy found himself automatically leaning forward, anticipating orders.
"You're breaking up some, but I copy, 51," the Chief said.
"…delay in contact….we got 'em, Chief….entrapment from an interior wall collapse affecting the switch control room…." Another burst of static, longer than the previous ones and then, "I repeat, Code I times four."
"Those are the guys from 22, right?" Johnny whispered a little nervously as he paced back and forth along the side of the Squad, shooting a quick guilty look at Ferrara.
Roy started to nod but then changed mid-gesture into a shrug as he watched a group of what appeared to be civilians cluster around Chief Miller, pulling out what looked like blueprints.
"Yeah," he said. "Kelleher and the guys who went in after him: 22's Captain and their linemen."
"Your transmission is breaking up, 51. What is your exact location?"
"….get near a window…"
A few long, breathlessly long, seconds of silence, of more waiting.
"Battalion 14, HT 51. Do you copy?"
It was about a clear a transmission as anyone could expect over an HT spoken through a facemask amidst a hell of a lot of ambient noise from the scene. Roy sighed and saw a corner of Johnny's mouth tip upward.
"Loud and clear, 51."
"Chief, our location is almost exact midpoint on the North side of floor four…"
One of the civilians near the Chief pointed to something on a blueprint and the rest of them nodded in agreement.
"….we are going to need assistance to get these guys out of here."
"Truck 86 is available, and Squad 51 is on scene and can assist you inside."
"Negative, Chief," Cap said, quickly enough that he either never gave it a thought or had considered and dismissed it already. "It's getting a little hot in here and these Code Is are not able to walk down a ladder. We need a rapid evac and treat on the ground. I'll knock out the window where we'll hand off."
In the distance, Chief Miller bent over the blueprints and then raised his head and looked directly at the fourth floor as if he could see his men inside.
"Snorkel 127, Battalion 14. Assist 51's rescue on the North side of the building. Floor four, window number five from the northwest corner. Look for 51's signal."
"Snorkel 127. 10-4."
"Truck 74, Battalion 14. Assume Snorkel 127's assignment and keep water on that fuel tank and generator."
"Truck 74. 10-4."
"Engine 51, HT 51. You copy my last transmission?"
"Every word, Cap," Stoker said, and even over the HT, Roy could hear the underlying sense of relief intertwined with Mike's calm. "We've got stuff prepped for you down here. Tell me what you need."
"Are Gage and DeSoto with you, Mike?"
Roy thumbed his HT before Stoker could answer. "We're here, Cap."
"Roy, we've got one case of smoke inhalation and loss of consciousness. The rest are injuries sustained in the interior wall collapse. Victim two has a broken arm and probable concussion. Victim three has a dislocated elbow. Victim four has a fractured femur. Everyone ate some smoke so they're going to need O2 as soon as you get them but victim one is going out first."
He was pretty sure that victim one was Kelleher and what Cap wasn't saying was that Kelleher was in pretty bad shape. From Ferrara's anxious pacing, he'd heard what wasn't being said too.
"Mike, if there's anyone in the perimeter around midpoint, north side, give them a debris fall warning."
As Roy was turning to look, Stoker said, "You're clear, Cap."
He watched Snorkel 127 come lumbering around the back, the west side, of the building, crawling into position to approach midpoint in between Truck 28 at the northeast corner and Truck 86 which had been pouring water through the windows on the second floor in the northwest corner of the building since he'd come on scene.
Cap must have seen the Snorkel approaching too. Roy couldn't hear the window glass shattering, but he could see some of the falling shards, oddly beautiful in the reflected light from the Light Truck mixed with the streaming water that an Engine company on the ground was shooting into the first floor. The head of the axe came through the window again, clearing out framing and panels of glass that hadn't fallen the first time.
Axe marks the spot, he thought and smiled, his own small, only slightly lame joke that he'd probably tell his partner later, not that Johnny would find it funny.
Gage swiveled to look at him.
"Let's get set up. We're going to need O2 on everyone, splints for the arm injuries, possibly a traction splint for the femur, and probably Stokes for two of the guys."
By the time they had the triage center set up and ready, Snorkel 127 was in position, spreading its A-frame stabilizers.
Roy and Ferrara grabbed the two Stokes and carried them, huffing a bit towards the Snorkel. He could feel the sweat pouring down between his shoulder blades and the tips of his ears were growing hot. Engine 28 to their left had a hose stream trained on the second floor windows above them, and the spray that blew their way was refreshingly cool.
"Five bucks says that cable vault'll burn through midday tomorrow," one of the guys from 127 was saying as Roy passed the Stokes baskets up.
"No bet," 127's Lieutenant replied. "It'll burn through Thanksgiving if we can't get more water on it. Those cables come in underground. Wonder how far that fire extends."
Roy looked down at the pavement beneath his feet and had a few uneasy moments contemplating an underground fire moving outward away from the building, under the parking lot, underneath all the Engines and Trucks and their triage area.
Finally, 127's long articulating boom began steadily rising towards the fourth floor window Cap had cleared.
Roy glanced over at Ferrara but his gaze was trained on the rising boom and the fourth floor window, top teeth chewing away at his bottom lip as the bucket reached the fourth floor.
Above them, Marco appeared at the window and took the Stokes that was passed up, handing it to someone behind him. Then he grabbed the railing of the Snorkel's bucket and helped one of 22's crew step over the railing and down into the arms of 127's operator.
Roy released a breath; one on his way to safety.
The spotlight glinted off a yellow blanket in the Stokes about seventy-five feet above their heads, handed carefully down into the bucket and then secured across the railings as best as possible, with 127's operator in one corner of the bucket and the other injured guy from 22s diagonally across from him. Ferrara shifted in place, anxious to get started, needing to take care of his partner and his crew.
Roy knew from experience that standing inside the bucket as the Snorkel raised or lowered it felt like a controlled rush, a glide. From the ground, it felt more like watching a snail crawl; the long seconds were interminable as they waited for the bucket to reach them.
And then, just like every other time Roy had been on a scene where a firefighter had been trapped or injured, there were more hands than strictly needed to help carry Matt Kelleher, pale, motionless, with a definite gray-blue tinge to his face. Ferrara walked at the head of the Stokes, talking quietly to his partner the fifty yards to the triage area and then took a stethoscope from Gage with a silent nod of thanks. He unwrapped the blanket to begin a vitals check while Gage set an oxygen mask over Kelleher's face.
Roy walked 22's lineman, Alex van der Heijden towards the triage area. Based on his dazed expression and his lack of response to verbal queries, he was probably concussed and his right arm was tucked into his coat in an attempt to protect it from jarring.
"I got him," Gage said, meeting him midway. Between the two of them, they half-walked, half-carried van der Heijden to a yellow blanket.
By the time he returned to the Snorkel, the bucket had climbed most of the way back up to the fourth floor. He waited, watching as it reached its destination. Marco helped 22's other lineman, Carl Ostrander, step down into the bucket, steadied immediately by 127's operator.
28's Captain was standing by the Snorkel and nodded to Roy.
"Shafer and DeAngelo caught a ride on a Mayfair back here. They're about three minutes out, maybe less."
"Good," Roy said, meaning it. Three paramedics for four firefighters with mostly unknown injuries was less than ideal. "We're gonna need their help."
28's Captain was looking upward now at the window, his jaw tightening. Roy followed his gaze upward and watched Captain Stanley lean down and rest his hand momentarily on the last of 22's injured guys, clearly reassuring what had to be 22's Captain in the Stokes. Then Cap helped Marco maneuver the Stokes into the Snorkel's bucket, wedging it between Ostrander who grabbed for it with his right hand, and 127's guy.
Cap said something to the guy from 127s who nodded in return and then the bucket pulled away.
Roy watched it descend, ever so slowly, and then glanced back up at the window, surprised to not see 51s crew waiting for their ride. Cap probably had them cleaning up, making sure that any equipment they'd carried in was coming back out with them.
He waited in silence, relieved that 28's Captain didn't feel the need to make small talk; he was busy, mentally triaging. Ferrara was going to treat Kelleher; he'd made that clear. Whether that was a good idea or not, Roy wasn't going to argue. He knew that if it had been Johnny – and considering Kelleher's condition, he said a quick prayer of thanks that it was not - he would have insisted on that right too. Johnny was treating van der Heijden. Based on what he'd seen of the transfer into the bucket, it was 22's Captain with the broken femur. Ostrander could wait until 28's paramedics arrived on scene; a fractured femur took precedence.
He chewed on the corner of his right thumb and then spat it out, scowling; it tasted like smoke, the noxious taste of an electrical fire.
He turned around and glanced back at the triage area, yellow blankets overlapping, treatment areas laid out and organized so that one biophone, oxygen tank set-up, EKG monitor, defibrillator, trauma and drug box could be easily accessed by two different paramedics, each working on his own patient. With the equipment from Squads 22 and 51, they'd set up two separate and distinct treatment areas, each able to treat two patients with shared equipment.
Naturally, Steve Ferrara was in one, with the handle of Squad 22's biophone cradled against his ear, and John Gage was in the other, in the process of starting on an IV on van der Heijden.
Roy sighed and shook his head, and then, as he heard a noise behind him, turned a little to his left.
For a moment, it sounded as if he was at the beach and there was a wave coming in, crashing on shore and then he was falling forward, grabbing for the side of the Snorkel to keep his balance, hands sliding off its chrome. He hit pavement far harder than he should have from such a short distance, from a nothing fall.
There was a buzzing in his head when he opened his eyes, and the world was full of tiny, narrow cracks. He blinked once and then again and a third time, until he realized that the tiny little lines were real and not a product of out of focus eyes. There was a hand on his left shoulder and someone's fingers scrabbling at his coat and hauling him up from the pavement.
Someone was talking to him but Roy couldn't make out what he was saying. The ringing in his ears was drowning out the words and the buzzing in his head made it impossible to read lips. He let the other fireman – 28's Captain, he finally realized - pull him up into a sitting position and then, remembering that he was waiting for the injured men in the Snorkel's bucket to reach the ground, turned and looked over the shoulder of 28's Captain. He was facing the wrong way though; he was looking back at the triage area. He could see Gage put a hand on van der Heijden, lean down to say something and then he turned and started running towards Roy.
The buzzing inside his head was lessening and though the ringing wasn't going away, he could now hear just well enough that he heard the distant sound of someone shouting.
He turned to his left to try to figure out if they were shouting at him and then he froze, eyes widening, mouth opening. He pushed upward, trying to climb to his feet, and grabbed at one of the Snorkel's stabilizers for leverage. On his feet now, he took a step forward and stared up at the building. Stared up at the flames bending upward from the windows of the fourth and fifth floors, spreading, intent on consuming, on devouring the upper levels of the building.
The flames were raging from all of the windows but one, and that was only because Truck 86 had already adjusted its position and was pouring water into the fifth window on the fourth floor. Big dark, heavy wet curls of smoke were rolling out of that window.
A hand grabbed the back of his coat and he turned into his partner's shell-shocked expression.
"You okay?" Johnny said slowly, making it easy to read his lips as if Roy couldn't have read his partner's face. "Roy, man, you were pretty close to that blast. Are you okay?"
He turned back to look at the Snorkel, at the bucket that was almost but not quite to the ground, at both 127's operator and Ostrander leaning dangerously far over the side of the bucket, Ostrander's face reddened, contorted in pain or concentration as he strained to hold onto his Captain's Stokes with only his right hand. 127's guy was leaning almost halfway out of the bucket but had both hands on the Stokes basket that swayed back and forth below him, Wozniak still strapped in place.
There were three or four firemen gathered on the ground below, reaching upward to the Stokes several feet beyond their extended fingertips. 28's Captain was shouting at someone from his crew to "bring a ladder, goddamnit!' 127's Lieutenant was scrambling up the boom, trying to reach the bucket, presumably to take over the controls or bring up a line that they could use to lower the Stokes.
Gage shook him to get his attention. "Roy, you stay here, and I'll be right back," he yelled, getting right up in Roy's face, his words coming from a distance, as if through a watery tunnel. "I'm going to head over there and help. You just stay here and wait for your head to stop spinning, okay?"
He reached out; his fingers slid off the heavy canvas of Gage's turnout coat, but that fragile contact was enough to draw his partner's attention back to him.
"Johnny," he said. And then since he'd run out of words, he looked up at the flame-engulfed fourth floor, at the blackened window frame gusting smoke.
Gage's expression completely dissolved for one second before Roy could see him make a conscious effort to pull all of that raw emotion back under control and harden his surface.
"Yeah, Roy," he said, voice gritty, a voice years older than Roy had ever before heard from John Gage. "I know."
Chapter 7: Vigil
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"HT 51, what is your status?"
It was the silence that ate at him. Ironic considering the nicknames he'd been given, that he'd earned over the years.
The initial blast had rocked the building and blown out all the windows on the fifth floor, the secondary blast, less than a second later, had done the same to the fourth floor. The shock wave had rolled across the back parking lot, dropping firefighters on their asses and rattling Snorkel 127 hard enough that for a moment he thought it might topple, like Snorkel 3 had in 1970, killing one firefighter and seriously injuring two others. This Snorkel listed briefly and then settled but the blast had done its damage, jarring the Stokes basket from its unsecured resting spot across the bucket's railing.
Mike Stoker was far enough away that he'd only fallen back against Engine 51's panel, barely stunned but immediately aware of exactly what had happened and what it meant for his crew.
They'd known that if the fuel for the back-up generator on the fifth floor was exposed to the heat of the fire long enough, and enough pressure built up in the fuel tank, the outcome was predictable, inevitable even. Snorkel 127, and then Truck 74, had been pouring water into the fifth floor from the south side of the building, attempting to cool the tank and the generator. But the combined efforts of the deluge, the foam unit and all other companies inside and out had failed to contain the fire in the basement cable vault and lower floors; the heat had continued to build and rise despite all efforts to control it.
They were lucky that it was a smaller generator, relatively speaking. He'd heard from 28's Captain who'd heard from the Pac Tel guys that some of the larger central offices had turbine engines the size of a 747 jet engine as part of their power plant. That and a long string of cabinet-sized batteries that served to act as an uninterrupted power supply during the time between the failure of the power grid and that generator being fully up and running. Telephone company central offices were built to survive days, even weeks, of a major power outage without anyone losing phone service.
“Battalion 14 to HT 51. Captain Stanley, respond.”
There was more and more time now between the IC's calls to his missing men, a silent acknowledgement that he wasn't going to get an answer. Those answers would come only when someone went in after them.
The linemen from Engine 19 that were working the hoses off his Engine were still sending occasional sympathetic glances in his direction. At least he was in a place where he could see what was going on, unlike his counterpart on Engine 19 whose Engine was part of the relay from the hydrant on W. Lomita halfway to S. Figuerosa. It would be unfathomably worse to be that far away from his Engine crew, to hear the explosion and try to fight the rising alarm, the panic, try to figure out what had happened with only the chaotic communications across the HT channels to answer his fear.
"HT 51, Snorkel 127. Do you copy?"
He'd watched crews from 127s, 28s, and 38s converge on the Snorkel after the blast, watched them use ladders and ropes to bring both the Stokes and Carl Ostrander to the ground safely.
Now, he watched Gage and about five or six other firefighters carry Captain Wozniak's Stokes to the triage area, setting it down near where Roy DeSoto was treating Ostrander. For some reason, Gage and DeSoto were working the end closest to Engine 51 instead of the end nearest their Squad and he didn't want to dwell on why that made him feel better.
They'd gone from three paramedics on scene to five: 28's DeAngelo and Shafer had climbed out of the back of a Mayfair just in time to get knocked off their feet. Now they were working next to 22's Ferrara, down by Squad 51. DeAngelo was taking care of van der Heijden, Ferrara taking care of Kelleher, and Shafer was moving through the triage area, helping out as needed.
"Snorkel 127, Battalion 14. Have you made contact with 51's team inside?"
Cap, Chet and Marco had had full air bottles and protective gear when they'd gone inside. He didn't like to think about what they might be breathing now. Assuming they still were.
The smoldering copper cables alone were producing a mix of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, hydrogen chloride, heavy metals and ash, among other things. The real fuel was the PVC insulation on those cables, which when burned released the chloride from the PVC and turned it into chlorine, and that burned your eyes and did a number on your ability to breathe.
"Battalion 14, Snorkel 127. Negative, Chief; no response. We are completing hydraulics check and expect to be operational in five."
From where he stood vigil, he could hear the near constant hum of Gage's voice as he bent over the battered Stokes, talking to Wozniak, talking to a firefighter from 14s - and where he'd come from, Stoker had no idea – who'd been shanghaied into helping.
"Leave it alone, Cap, that collar's on for a reason," Gage said, gently batting down Wozniak's befuddled grab at the cervical collar. "Now, McIntyre, listen up. Shafer and I are gonna roll the Cap, and I'm gonna check him out, real quick, check his back, and then you're gonna get that backboard in when I tell you. You got it?"
Gage kept up the patter, his voice cheerful and reassuring even as his jaw tightened and his eyes went flat while running his right hand down Wozniak's spine.
"Okay, McIntyre, now slide that in there right now. Yup, just like that, and…."
Gage and Shafer rolled Wozniak smoothly onto the backboard, grimacing as 22's Captain yelped.
"Hang in there, Cap." Gage switched to the biophone. "Rampart, this is Squad 51…"
Stoker turned his attention back to the building.
It would be a quick rescue, grab them and get out. Truck 86 was already in a supporting position; they had knocked down the flames in that area immediately following the explosion and had been keeping it wet with fog since.
He swallowed, and if he'd believed in some kind of higher power, this would have been the time he'd have said a prayer. Instead, as Snorkel 127's boom began rising smoothly into the night, inside his head he simply said 'please.'
He'd already calculated that it would take two excruciatingly slow trips. As expected, 127s was sending two men in to search, and one to man the bucket; it would be a tight fit with four, there was no way that bucket would carry six men.
It probably took forty-five seconds for the bucket to reach the window; it felt like four or five minutes. Two figures clamored out of it and disappeared into the smoke-filled fourth floor. And then the real waiting began.
He checked the gauges: the pressure on the lines was unchanged. He looked in the direction of Engine 19's guys, and then glanced over to the triage area. He watched Roy carefully wrap and secure Ostrander's left elbow for almost an entire minute before looking back at the building.
127's guy was standing in the bucket, peering toward the window, waiting.
He watched Gage start an IV on Captain Wozniak before glancing back to the window and this time, his tired, straining eyes made out shapes at the window, two bulky forms carrying a third bulky form. They passed him to the guy in the bucket, and then turned around and went back into the building.
He took a shaky breath, startled to realize he'd held it since the three figures had appeared at the window.
He shifted his attention to Truck 86 who'd adjusted the direction of their fog pattern, presumably able to see what he could not inside the fourth floor. Truck 28, just east of the Snorkel, had suppressed most of the fire on that side of the fourth floor. The fifth floor was still burning and if he strained he could see the IC pointing at it and discussing something with man in a Captain's helmet, too far away to identify.
When he looked back at the building, a figure appeared in the window, followed by another, and between them they held another limp form. They handed him off to the man in the bucket and as the bucket started to descend, they went back in to find the last missing man.
They're not dead, he kept reminding himself, as first Chet and then Marco were laid gently on formerly pristine blankets. If they were dead, surely someone would have started some type of resuscitation attempt the minute they were on the ground. They wouldn't have carried truly lifeless bodies to the triage area, would they?
SCBA tanks were removed first and then shears appeared and cut off turnout coats that were both charred and soaking wet. The oxygen masks were non-rebreathers, not bag valve, so apparently they were breathing on their own. Shafer grabbed for the BP cuff and wrapped it around Marco's arm as DeAngelo pressed his fingers against Chet's carotid. They looked like a well-oiled team. They looked like Gage and DeSoto.
It took longer than forever and it took about five minutes. By the time the last unnervingly still member of 51's search team was being carried down in the bucket with all three men from 127s, Stoker was jittery, as if he'd been mainlining caffeine for a month. It felt like swimming the length of a pool underwater, at the very bottom, eyes open and ears slightly popping and then breaking through the surface and being stunned at the noise.
He winced as an attendant slammed the back of a Mayfair. Ferrara was riding in with Kelleher and van der Heijden, the two most seriously injured that were ready to be transported. Wozniak was probably in worse shape than van der Heijden but he was nowhere near stabilized and Gage was chewing his lip as he talked to Rampart on the biophone.
"Over here," Roy's voice called out sharply and the two men carrying the limp body of his Captain veered in that direction.
"You okay, son?"
At first Stoker thought he'd imagined the voice, and for one incredibly unnerving second, he even thought it was his father's voice. Then a hand settled on his right shoulder and startled, he whirled.
The man was older than he was, probably mid-40's, and wore a Captain's helmet with a large 19 on its front.
"Yeah," he managed to get out through a dry mouth. "I'm…"
The words were there, they were familiar, but his tongue wouldn't form the syllables, as if even his own tongue didn't believe he was okay.
"… I don't know," he finally said. "That's my crew and I don't know if they're …"
His traitorous mouth failed him again and his traitorous mind continued to substitute words other than 'okay,' words that echoed and paralyzed him.
19's Captain nodded solemnly and then he realized with sudden horror that those were Engine 19's guys at the end of the charged lines from his Engine and he was supposed to be making sure that they had what they needed. Frantically he turned and looked at the gauges and then out at the firemen. They were fine, but he might not have even realized that they weren't until it was too late. He'd betrayed their trust; he'd failed them.
"I can't stand you down," the Captain said with obvious regret. "We just don't have the manpower. But I can relieve you for a bit. Let you go take care of your guys while I take care of mine." His mouth twitched into something that was almost a smile. "Plus I get to remember how much fun it was to be an Engineer."
He fought down a surge of emotion that was wild and barely under his control - whatever it was would be embarrassing at best –and, lips pressed tightly together, he nodded in gratitude.
"Thanks, Cap," he said, amazed that his voice only slightly wobbled.
He strode quickly toward the edge of triage area and made eye contact with Gage who looked puzzled. Gage leaned hard to his right, peered around Stoker and apparently put the pieces together.
"Roy's just finishing up with Ostrander; he'll probably go out in the next transport. Can you get Cap started? Basic vitals check, let us know if there's something we need to take care of right away?"
He swallowed and his nerves must have shown on his face because Gage immediately said, "Roy'll be there in a minute, Mike. Just get his coat off and get him on some O2. See if that wakes him up, okay?"
It was men from Engine 28 who'd carried Hank Stanley over to where Roy had directed, between where Gage was working on Wozniak and where Roy was working on Ostrander. From the looks on their faces, the guys doing the carrying were waiting for some direction.
Okay, coat off, get him on O2. I can do that.
"Get his legs down, we're going to have him flat on his back in sec. Lean him into me for now," he said as he dropped into a crouch, straddling Stanley's legs. "Then help me get his gear off."
A few seconds later he had an armful of unconscious company officer, Stanley's facemask up against his left shoulder and he could feel the heat rising off the charred turnout coat through the protection of his own coat.
"Get his tank off," he said.
That was the easy part. The harness was designed to swap out tanks and Stoker immediately felt a reduction in weight pressed against him. Now for the rest.
"Cut 'em," Roy said from the other side of Ostrander. "Just cut the straps and then cut his coat off. Don't bother trying to get it off the regular way." He tossed a set of shears that landed flat on the blanket a few inches from where Stoker was kneeling. "I'll be there in a sec."
A couple of quick snips by one of the guys from 28s and then the other removed the tank frame and harness.
"Helmet next. Wait, loosen his chip strap."
Cap always wore that tightly fastened, he never lost his helmet, and the association between the two appeared to be something that no one was able to get through Gage's head.
"Careful with his head and neck," Roy said.
Stoker spread his right hand over the back of Stanley's neck, gripping the base of his skull and neck to keep them in position. "Go ahead."
The helmet was easy, as was the facemask. Now he had his Captain's head slumped against his shoulder and rapid, shallow breaths hitting the side of his neck. He nodded a go ahead to the shears guy who ran them up the right sleeve of Cap's coat, over the right shoulder, across the back and then stopped.
"Left shoulder's out."
"Yeah, I see that now."
He almost added 'be careful' or something but he bit his tongue.
The guy continued cutting, slowly, carefully, around a left shoulder that was not the right shape or position. Mike's gaze followed the shears down the left sleeve to a ferociously swollen wrist, to several gloved fingers that were misshapen and crooked, obviously broken.
Shears guy peeled away the back of Cap's coat and then squatted in position, ready to hold c-spine and they shifted Stanley until he was flat on the ground. The other guy from 28s dragged an oxygen setup to right exactly where Mike needed it.
This was familiar turf. He'd helped Gage and DeSoto dozens of times, probably more than dozens of times. He set the plastic oxygen mask in place, pulled his gloves off and then moved on to taking vitals. He never saw or heard the men from Engine 28 vanish back into the fray; it was as if the triage area was a scene unto itself.
"How's he doing, Mike?" Gage called from behind him.
Stoker finished multiplying in his head.
"Pulse 116, respirations 24 and shallow. Pale, comatose. I'm not sure if he's diaphoretic or just wet; he feels cold even though his coat was pretty hot. Possible dislocated left shoulder, fractured left wrist and a couple of fingers on his left hand."
"You're doing fine," Roy said, startling him with his nearness as he knelt across from him and wrapped a BP cuff around Cap's upper arm. "What else do you see?" He puffed the cuff up and then bent down with his stethoscope to listen.
Mike ran his gaze and then careful hands over each limb.
"Left knee's swollen."
Cap twitched underneath his hands as they ran across blue uniform shirt.
"Ribs on the left are tender. Left collarbone is swollen, possibly broken. Damn, he hit something hard."
"Or something hit him. He's out pretty deep," Roy said as he straightened, frowning. "BP's 90 over 66," he said, eyes searching up and down his patient. "See if you can find where he's bleeding."
There'd been a little blood on the broken fingers but nothing major. He started from the bottom and worked his way up again, searching with his eyes, testing with his fingers.
"That's it, Hank, give me a good cough," Roy coaxed, stethoscope tucked inside Stanley's shirt. "Respirations are fast but if he ate any smoke, it's not bothering him much."
Stoker straightened and raised blood-covered fingertips.
"Laceration and swelling, base of the skull on the right," he said, trying to suppress the flutter in his stomach at the thought of a head injury. "And there's blood in his ear."
DeSoto moved rapidly, fingers probing the back of Stanley's head. “Hank! Come on, Hank, open your eyes.”
As Roy pulled the pen light from his shirt pocket, checked both ear canals and then pried each eyelid upward, Mike wiped his fingertips on his own uniform pants, his own gaze locked on the penlight’s beam.
Coat’s off, O2’s flowing. C’mon, Cap. Time to wake up.
"I don’t think that’s it," Roy muttered and then looked up at Stoker. "Pupils are unequal but neither is blown; probably a concussion. I think the bleeding in his ear is coming from the eardrum, which could’ve ruptured. It happens with blast injuries. Can you get me some gauze?"
Stoker grabbed more gauze than was necessary and passed a stack of 4x4s to DeSoto.
"Any word on Chet and Marco?"
Roy squinted at a piece of bloody gauze and sighed in what sounded like relief. "Okay, it's just blood." He looked over at Stoker. "Chet's conscious, Marco's semi-conscious. From what I heard Shafer and DeAngelo saying, it sounded like blast injuries on both, blunt trauma, nothing penetrating, some fractures. First, maybe second degree burns on their legs. Marco might have some crackling in his lungs." He frowned as he looked down at his patient. "Help me roll him, I need to check his back."
He held c-spine and they rolled him on Roy's count.
"No deformities, no swelling, everything feels normal," Roy said. "Cap, where the hell are you bleeding?"
A set of shears from Roy's belt easily sliced Stanley's uniform and under shirts, exposing a couple of lacerations and large contusions that were going to be spectacular and colorful bruises, but no external bleeding that either of them could find. They rolled him back and Roy gave a soft sigh as his seeking hands slid down Stanley’s torso, finding and palpitating contusions on the chest and abdomen.
"Mike, I’m gonna need the biophone, data scope and drug box."
Stoker scrambled to his feet and turned to Gage's side of the treatment area and suddenly he could hear other voices calling, the ever present crackle of traffic on the HT frequencies, and the roar and heat of the fire again.
"Hey, Mike, when you get a chance, I could use some help," Gage said as soon as he caught sight of Stoker.
"Sure thing, Johnny," he said, and his voice sounded a lot calmer than his racing heart. "You done with the biophone?"
He delivered everything Roy had asked for and then returned to Gage's side.
"What do you need?"
Head immobilized in the c-collar, only Wozniak's eyes were able to shift towards Stoker. His usually ruddy face was blotchier than normal and his sandy hair stood up in spiky clumps that gave him an oddly punk look for a Fire Captain in his mid-40s.
"How are my guys doing?" he said, voice scratchy, eyes anxious.
Stoker looked at Gage. He was willing to bet that this wasn't the first time the question had been asked and he didn't honestly know the conditions of all of 22's men. He had seen Carl Ostrander and he didn't look too bad.
"How about I check and see if Carl can come over and fill you in, Cap?"
Gage gave him a quick, approving nod and said, "Good idea. Help me get him secured to the backboard for transport and then go get Ostrander."
That was something definitely easier done by two guys and he wondered where the shanghaied guy from 14s had gone; probably back to where he was supposed to be in the first place. Gage's reassuring patter, explaining exactly what he was doing while he was doing it, with a refrain of 'don't worry, you're doing okay, you're doing fine,' was starting to soak into his own brain. By the time they were done, and he stepped towards Ostrander, he felt as if the band that had tightened around his chest was starting to loosen.
"Hal," Roy's voice called, "he's going first, right away."
Stoker turned. In the time, he'd been helping Gage, Roy had hung two bags of saline from the oxygen cart, established the IVs and had inserted an oral airway. Stoker felt the band start to tighten again, just a little as he took a hesitant step back towards Roy and Captain Stanley, watching the Mayfair attendants drag the cot towards the triage area.
"Mike," Roy paused in front of him, and his voice gentled. "The airway’s precautionary but his BPs not good. We need to get some fluids in him as quickly as possible so I need you to hand pump those bags while I talk to Johnny for a sec."
He nodded, grateful for something he could do, and knelt next to his captain.
He reached down and touched a blanket covered shoulder, which was pale and cold despite the heat still pouring from the burning building. In the anemic light reaching the triage area from the Light Truck and the swirling red lights bouncing off the yellow blanket, Stanley’s face was ashen where it wasn’t streaked with soot, his features utterly slack.
Stoker swallowed hard and tried not to react, tried not to notice how his own breathing had changed, how his hands shook as he pressed the bags of saline.
"You probably heard," he said, voice wavering a little, "but in case you didn't, you got the guys from 22s out of the building safely. Chet and Marco are out and safe too. They're a little banged up, but no worse than you are. I know you're going to deconstruct this later, but I don't think there was anything more you, or anyone, could have done to get everyone out of the building faster. No one knew that fuel tank was going to blow when it did."
He heard Gage say, "Yeah, okay," and then Roy was back.
He helped Roy and the Mayfair attendants lift Captain Stanley onto the cot and trailed after them, weighted down with Squad 51's biophone, data scope, defibrillator and drug box. Behind him he could hear Gage shouting directions to Squad 28's paramedics.
"Brackett says Cap'n Stanley is transport immediately. Cap'n Wozniak," Johnny said, pointing, "and Marco go next, so I can take the Cap or take 'em both. Chet and Carl go when the next ambulance is on site. You guys work it out but we need one of you to stay and the IC wants us all back as soon as Rampart releases us and we find a ride back."
"You've been taking care of Kelly," Shafer said to his partner at the exact same time DeAngelo said, "I'll take Chet in."
Hal, George and Roy loaded Cap into the back of the Mayfair. As Stoker handed Roy the drug box, Gage jogged up.
"Roy, you sure you're okay with him on your own?"
Roy looked up from where he hovered over Cap and his compressed lips and the way his eyes didn't seem to want to meet theirs said 'no, he sure wasn't.'
"I'm not on my own," he said in a flat tone. "Hal's with me. Besides, Captain Wozniak may have a spinal cord injury; you know you need to take care of him. "
Gage didn't immediately reply.
"Johnny," Roy said quietly, insistently. "We need to go now."
Gage nodded and pushed the back door shut, his face blank of all expression as he did so. He smacked it twice and then turned away, motioning sharply to the next set of Mayfair attendants.
"These two go next."
Stoker stood there in the midst of organized chaos contributing absolutely nothing, as Gage and one of the attendants loaded Wozniak, and then Shafer and the other attendant loaded Marco. They were loaded and pulling out before he remembered that Wozniak wanted to know how his men were doing and he was supposed to have brought Ostrander over to reassure him.
He wanted to go talk to Chet, see how he was doing. He watched DeAngelo talking to Chet and casually rechecking vitals. Shafer tugged the blanket a little higher on Ostrander and it looked as if both guys were in good hands.
Work now. Feel later.
Engine 19's Captain had been a huge help to step in but they were down two entire Engine crews now. 19's Captain needed to get back to his job, so he needed to go back and do his.
He leaned down in the detritus of plastic and paper wrappers, cut-off charred and smoky turnout coats and discarded gauze; he picked up the striped helmet, then made his way through the triage area towards his Engine. She was the only part of his crew that was still fighting the fire.
For those of you who may have read this on another site, you might have noticed that I slightly rearranged some of the opening paragraphs to something I find far more satisfactory.
Chapter 8: Disconnected
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
You'd think a guy in a turnout coat would be easier to find in an Emergency Room. Okay, scratch that. He'd pulled off his helmet and coat before he'd climbed inside the ambulance with Wozniak and Marco, and thank God it was one of the boxy, larger ones because there was nothing worse than trying to keep your balance and take care of two patients in one of those long, skinny ones that looked like a hearse. And for a change, his patients had remained stable, requiring only monitoring and updated vitals on the way in.
Roy'd probably done the same thing, left his coat and gear somewhere, but he should have been able to pick out a guy in a Fireman's blues in the midst of all the white coats and white nurses uniforms and the civilians clogging up the place.
And speaking of white nurse's uniforms….
"Dix! Hey, Dix! Dix, you got a sec?"
She really didn't look as if she did, rushing out of Treatment Room 3 and headed into Treatment Room 1. She turned startled eyes towards him; her well-known ability to juggle three thousand things at once apparently maxed out.
"Well," she said, trying for her usual casual drawl, but she sounded terse and time pressed. "Just about one, Johnny. But only because it's you."
It warmed him, just as it always did and he almost managed a smile.
"You seen Roy?"
She nodded and then looked around, eyes searching up and down the main corridor.
"Huh, he was just here." She turned back to face him. "He was trying to find a working phone to call his wife. I told him they were all out, payphone, hospital phones, probably his home phone, you name it, if you're trying to call an outside line." She gestured towards the glassed-in room where they ran the Squads assigned to Rampart. "Radio frequencies are working and we've been communicating with the Fire and Police Departments that way but TV reports say the phones are out all over Carson and Gardena. Parts of Torrance and Lomita too." Her expression softened, gentle and worried. "That fire you guys are working sounds like a bad one."
He nodded, momentarily speechless as he considered the unbelievable prospect of no phones working anywhere in this part of the county.
"No phones?" he said.
"No phones," she confirmed. "Listen, I've got to go. Good luck finding your partner," she paused and turned back to him. "And hey, keep an eye on him when you do find him. Your Captain gave him a rough time on the ride in. Roy seemed a little… shaken up." She made a face, trusting him to figure the rest of it out.
"Yeah, okay," Gage said, stomach bottoming out. "Is Cap…?"
"On his way to surgery. I'll see you later."
As she pushed into Treatment Room 1, he could hear Morton's voice rising, each word precisely enunciated, "I asked for that CBC almost twenty minutes ago…" and then the door swung shut.
He leaned against the wall outside Treatment Room 1 and breathed into steepled hands cupping his nose and mouth.
Cap on his way to surgery meant still alive. Marco was in Treatment 2 with some intern and a Pulmonologist. Wozniak was in Treatment 3 with Early, along with an Orthopedics specialist and a Neurosurgeon. That left Kelleher or van der Heijden or possibly a non-FD patient in Treatment 1 with Morton. Maybe one of the injured employees Ferrara or the guys from 28s had brought in earlier. It felt as if the entire world had stopped and everything revolved around the fire, which he knew wasn't the case because he could turn his head about 2 inches to his right and see a waiting room full of civilians who were there for reasons that had nothing to do with the fire.
He needed to find Roy and then find a Mayfair heading back to the scene. DeAngelo should be bringing Chet and Ostrander in any minute now and they needed paramedics on scene because that fire was just a respiratory nightmare. At minimum, lots of guys were going to need their eyes washed out and a little quality time with 100% O2.
He'd collected the equipment he'd brought in with Wozniak and Marco and was now stocking up on saline with one hand and trying to log it out in the book with the other when he caught sight of Roy DeSoto coming through the doors that led up from the basement. He really had been trying to find any possible working phone. And, crap. He looked awful: red-rimmed eyes and exhaustion just written all over his grime-streaked face.
His partner straightened, blinked a few times and tried to put his professional expression back on but Gage could see right through it as Roy nodded at him and headed towards the nurse's station.
Roy cleared his throat but his voice still sounded rough, hoarse. "I was trying to call Joanne. The phones are out."
Gage nodded, piling up the bags of saline into a box, letting Roy set the pace. Despite his reputation, he really did know when to shut up and listen and his partner wasn't someone who liked to be rushed under the best of conditions. And okay, maybe he didn't always actually act on that knowledge, but now looked like one of the times when he really should.
"Television is saying it's all of Carson City, West Carson, Gardena and some other areas too." Roy peered into the box and his expression shifted. "Let's restock some Ringers. Just in case."
Gage swung around to the cabinet and reached for the right drawer, lifted two bags and raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, that should do for now," Roy said. "How come you don't look as tired as I feel?"
He shrugged. "Maybe I'm a marathoner, not a sprinter." He scribbled his signature and the date in the book and then glanced at his watch. Twenty minutes past midnight. He scribbled out yesterday's date and wrote today's in cramped script. "You ready?"
Roy was staring at him. "Weren't you Mr. 440 in High School? You ran it in a 48.3 or something, right?"
"That was high school track, Roy," he said, and then grabbed the box and swung it onto his hip. "I'm talking about life here, you know?"
Roy was still staring at him a little oddly. "Who are you and what have you done with John Gage?"
"Maybe I just have hidden depths. Did'ja ever think about that?"
They reached the Ambulance Only entrance just as the doors swung open and Tom DeAngelo and a Mayfair attendant walked Chet Kelly in. He knew you could tell a lot about someone's condition by how quickly the attendants were moving the bed and while DeAngelo wasn't taking his time, he wasn't running either.
"Heeeey, Chet," Gage said, walking backwards and keeping pace with the stretcher.
Chet's eyes blinked open slowly, and then he gave Gage a lazy grin under the oxygen mask and a thumbs up.
"Someone's getting the good stuff," Gage said, with a look at DeAngelo.
MS in the field mean no worries about a head injury, although really, with Chet Kelly, how could you really tell? The boxy shape of a splint under the blanket on the right side meant that Chet was probably going to be out for at least a couple weeks, probably more like a couple of months.
DeAngelo nodded. "Knee, ribs, some minor burns and muscle strain. He should be fine."
He kept pace with them all the way into Treatment Room 5 and then spun back to his partner who was walking along the stretcher bearing Carl Ostrander, talking softly. Ostrander was propped up, his elbow bandaged and held in place against his body. He seemed to be a lot more comfortable than he had on scene.
Gage grabbed the attendant just coming out of Room 5. "Hey, you guys going back to the Pac Tel fire?" At the man's less than enthusiastic nod, he grinned. "Okay, you've got two passengers for the trip back. Don't leave without us, okay?"
He spent a few minutes in the hallway, waiting for Roy who'd walked into Treatment 4 with Ostrander and was probably briefing whatever intern was handling the case. Between the fire and the waiting room, it looked like the Rampart ER docs were stretched pretty thin tonight.
"Ostrander's going to be fine," Roy said as he came out of the room, and if he wasn't actually smiling, at least he didn't look as exhausted as he had earlier.
"Chet looked good too," Gage said, walking side by side with his partner. "Marco was pretty out it; the doc thinks it's a concussion and not a mild one either. He messed up his lower right arm but they're going to need x-rays it to see if it's a break. Could just be a bad sprain. He's got a lot of deep bruising, probably some muscle strain, and they're checking his lungs because Shafer found some upper airway edema and he heard crackling."
Roy nodded absently, volunteering nothing as they loaded their equipment in and then climbed into the back of the Mayfair. Gage put the box of saline and Ringers bags on the bench between them.
"Dr. Early's got a bunch of specialists looking at Cap'n Wozniak," Gage said. "There's definitely swelling around the L1 but they don't know if there's cord damage." He shook his head as he took a deep breath. "I just don't know if that happened when that interior wall collapsed or when his Stokes fell."
He wasn't sure why the thought of the injury happening during the rescue was bothering him so much. It wasn't as if an injury to the L1 vertebrae would be less damaging if it had happened inside.
He slid his eyes to the right. Roy was staring into the distance, not really listening to him.
"Okay, man, you're killing me here," he said, turning to face Roy as he reached the end of his patience. "What happened on the way in? Is Cap going to be okay?"
Roy straightened a little, some ambiguous emotion flickering across his face.
"I hope so." He paused and then frowned. "But I'm not really sure." And then he sagged and looked exhausted again. "He was hypovolemic and shocky at the scene but he'd stabilized somewhat. Or at least I thought he had, but then when we were about five minutes out, the scope started showing some arrhythmias…"
Roy shook his head. "No, thank God, but his BP was dropping to the point where as we pulled in, I couldn't get a diastolic, and that was more than enough to scare the hell out of me. Brackett got him stabilized enough that the surgeons could take him up and do an exploratory, figure out where and why he was hemorrhaging. It's just," he drew a somewhat shaky breath, "the next time Cap starts getting on us about giving him gray hair, remind me to let him have it, okay?"
Gage sagged against the back of the bench.
"Okay, just as long as there is a next time." He thought about what he said versus what he'd meant and frowned. "You know what I meant. Not that we should be involved in something that gives him gray hair because it's not like we're really having all that much fun either when that happens."
Roy bumped him with his elbow. "Yep."
"You know, I thought you were going to tell me he'd coded on the way in or something like that and you had to do CPR all the way to Rampart."
He could sense Roy turning to look at him and definitely could feel the heat of that incredulous stare.
"'Cause I wouldn't wish that on anyone, but since you were acting all…" he paused and fumbled for the right word, "freaked out, I figured it had to be something really bad to get you so rattled."
Roy snapped; he was almost shouting when he said, "Because Cap bleeding out on the way to Rampart and knowing that nothing I was doing was making any difference wasn't really bad?"
"Roy. That's not what I said," Gage said, fully serious now. "I knew he was in bad shape when you took him in." He paused briefly and dropped his voice. "If we'd had enough guys on scene, I would have gone in with you because I just had a real bad feeling about it." He waited for Roy to take a couple of deep, pretty shaky breaths. "You know, you said nothing you were doing was working but you got him to Rampart, and maybe if you weren't doing what you were doing, Brackett getting some whole blood and the right meds into him wouldn't have been enough. That's a long way from nothing."
The ambulance wasn't running hot but it bumped around a corner probably faster than it needed to and they both swayed with it, many hours of practice making the adjustments almost unconscious.
"You know, Dr. Freud," Roy said, and Gage could already hear the difference in his voice, "that was actually pretty sneaky. I'm never really entirely sure if you're being deliberately provocative to get me to talk or just being an insensitive ass. "
Gage peered out the window and could see the glare of the fire in the distance.
"Well, you're kind of a difficult case, Roy," he said and really, he tried not to smirk, no matter what it sounded like. "It takes a special form of shock therapy to help someone as repressed as you are but I knew it was the right course of treatment when you were going to wake up Joanne to talk about it. Or you would have if the phones were working. I mean, from what I heard, you pretty much tried every phone in the hospital trying to call her."
And there was just enough weirdness in how Roy said the single syllable that Gage sat up straight and turned to look at his partner.
"That wasn't actually why…" Roy trailed off and then regrouped. "Okay, maybe partially it was. Dixie said that the television stations have been doing special reports, breaking news alerts on the fire since it started earlier and you know they're going to harp on the fact that there were line of duty injuries."
Gage sighed in agreement and nodded his head.
"And if by any chance, Joanne was watching the news, I didn't want her to worry. I wanted to let her know that we had some guys injured from 51s, but you know, that I was okay."
Gage nodded again.
"And then I couldn't find a phone. None of them are working, and I tried pretty much every phone in Rampart, pay phone, the one at the nurse's station, the one in Brackett's office, and then tried some other floors…"
"Well, think about it, Roy," he said. "If the place where all the phone lines originate is on fire…"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, but I wasn't thinking about that."
They were a couple of blocks from the fire, but traffic was amazingly heavy for this time of night, probably because so much of it was diverted from W. Lomita and probably some of it was the vultures who came out to watch the fire, as if watching the news reports wasn't enough. And of course there was the media. He could see the lights from the television camera crew trucks in the distance already.
"What I was thinking… Well, you're not married, so maybe this wouldn't occur to you," Roy said. "But you've got Emergency contacts, we all do. You've got your Aunt listed because she's local, right? How'd you tell her that she'd be notified if you got hurt?"
"Someone from the Department would call her, probably Cap or you, but maybe someone from HQ."
Roy nodded, head bobbing rapidly. "Okay, and what did you tell her about how she'd get notified if, you know, the worst happened? If you got killed, line of duty?"
He would swear he could feel his heart rate increase but it was probably his respiration. "I told her that someone would come in person if they could, because …"
And then it clicked.
"Yeah," Roy echoed. "No phones."
"Shit, shit, shit," he said quietly as he imagined Cap's wife, Marco's mother, Chet's mother, all getting woken up in next hour or next few hours by someone from the Department ringing the doorbell or pounding on the door and exactly what they were going to think when they saw that it was someone in uniform standing on the doorstep looking somber and uncomfortable.
"You know, I told Joanne that it's not a hard and fast rule that a phone call equals injury and that a home visit means someone died, but you know, or maybe you don't, the wives talk and compare notes, and most of the time that's how it goes, or at least that's how they expect it to go."
"Well, it's not like getting a call after midnight would be all that great either," he said, thinking about his Aunt and how she'd react, and feeling just absolutely sick. "The phone rings after midnight and it's either a wrong number, in which case you want to kill the other person, or you know it's bad news."
"Or in your case, it might be one of your nutcase neighbors."
He decided to just let that slide, being as Roy was still bouncing back.
They approached the turn onto S. Main, local law enforcement waving the ambulance through and he started trying to get his head ready to go back on scene, to get ready to treat any other injuries.
"You know the other thing about the phones being down, Roy?"
DeSoto made a sound, part grunt, part hmmm, that he chose to interpret as a request for him to continue.
"There are going to be a lot of people this part of the county who need assistance - fire, police, medical, you name it - who aren't going to get it."
There is a telephone company central office in Torrance, but as far as I know there is not one in Carson. If you Google Map the location I gave, you'll find what looks like a dirt lot on the corner of S. Main and W. Lomita. Maybe there was a telephone company central office there in the 1970s and it burned down or maybe it's entirely the product of this author's imagination...
Chapter 9: The Long Hours
The Chiefs had arrived on scene.
He didn't know if it was the threat to public safety for tens of thousands of Los Angeles County residents and businesses without phone service that had brought out the white helmets, or the millions of dollars in fire, smoke and water related damage to the telephone company central office, or the fact that seven – no wait, 36's paramedics were still getting breathing treatments so it was nine - firefighters had already been hospitalized, but Roy wondered if the Los Angeles County Fire Department had opened a Headquarters branch in Carson. And there were a lot of guys in business suits hanging around with them; he presumed that the Pacific Telephone Company's upper management had arrived in full force as well.
He noticed other things too. Parked next to the light truck was a mobile air trailer for refilling SCBA bottles at the scene and someone from HQ with a brain had made sure that all responding companies had plenty of water to keep their guys hydrated when they rotated off the hoses and swapped out their tanks.
But based on the IV that Shafer had going on a firefighter Roy'd never seen before, not everyone was taking advantage of it.
"Word is that the Sheriff's department, the LAPD, pretty much every law enforcement agency has every vehicle on the road, patrolling slowly so that if there's an emergency, someone can wave them down and they can radio it in," Shafer said as he adjusted the flow of the IV.
"Makes sense," Gage said, as he dropped the box of supplies in the center of the triage area. "Kinda smart, actually."
Roy glanced around, surveying the mess they'd left behind when they'd pulled out earlier and he grimaced.
On the plus side, in the time they'd been gone, the crews on scene seemed to have gotten the fourth and fifth floors under control, and the second floor was on its way to being contained even if it was still putting out smoke so dense that that it seemed the hose streams were slicing it into pieces rather than dissipating it.
"All of the television stations and radios are broadcasting updates, letting people know how to get help and of course every politician in the County is getting his face in front of the cameras whether his district is affected by it or not."
Shafer hadn't left the scene any time in the last hour so Roy wondered if there was any truth what he was saying, or if Shafer was just repeating the rumors he'd heard from the guys he'd treated.
He watched Shafer listen to his current patient's lungs with a stethoscope and then say something with a grin that was returned.
Shafer patted the guy on the shoulder. "Finish out that bag and then we'll see how you're doing, okay?"
He joined Roy in picking up some of the medical debris.
"How'd it go?" Shafer asked in a quiet tone, one not meant for the guy on the IV. "You see Ferrara while you were there? Any word on Kelleher?"
He was definitely not interested in reliving his trip in so he went for the easier questions.
"I didn't see Steve at Rampart; I was kind of expecting to see him back here." Come to mind, it was a little surprising that Ferrara hadn't been more visible. "I don't know. Maybe he was trying to get in touch with Kelleher's family but he would've had to go somewhere out of district to find a working phone."
It wasn't as if Ferrara's Captain or crew were in position to know if he'd taken an unauthorized side trip, but it just didn't seem like something the Steve Ferrara that he knew would do in this situation.
Shafer bent down and swept some discarded wrappers into the palm of his hand, and then looked around for a place to toss them. Roy held out the bag he'd been using.
"All I got from Brackett was that Matt had inhaled a lot of smoke. With all the activity from this scene, plus the normal stuff, the ER docs are spread pretty thin, so he told me that some doc from Pulmonology had taken over Kelleher's case. And then Brackett got pulled into something else, so I didn't get a chance to ask him anything more."
"A pulmonologist? That ain't good. Don't suppose Brackett mentioned his O2 sat levels?
Roy shook his head, slumping a little as he thought about what Gage had said about Marco getting his lungs checked too.
"Hey, Shafer!" Gage yelled. "Where're their helmets and stuff?"
Shafer didn't even fully turn, just twisted his neck to one side. "On their Engines. Stoker picked up some, Harrison picked up some and I brought over the rest."
And damn, Roy thought, I haven't even checked in on Mike Stoker, Engine 51's last man standing. He turned and looked toward the Engine, where Stoker stood dutifully at his post, which seemed a lot more solitary than it usually did. Roy felt both obligated and reluctant and then he was swept by an embarrassing surge of relief when Gage waved him off and jogged over in that direction.
"You guys okay?"
He should have been the one to check on Stoker, not Johnny.
He, Mike and Cap were the senior guys on their shift: the leaders, officially in Cap's case, unofficially in theirs. They were the ones who set the example for the rest of the guys to follow. He had a pretty good idea of how Mike might be feeling after watching that building blow with the rest of their crew inside it. Or maybe he didn't; he'd been lucky enough to have his partner at his side afterwards and then plenty to keep him occupied.
Mike wasn't the type to open up to just anyone either. He was pretty sure that Mike was even careful about what he said to Cap, since there were things you might talk about with a good friend that you really couldn't tell your commanding officer, even one as fair-minded as Hank Stanley. And then he was blindsided by the sudden realization that with Cap down, Mike was officially in charge of Station 51's A-shift right now, his boss, at least until the Department brought in a replacement Captain.
Shafer stopped into his personal space and Roy jerked his mind back to the scene. Wandering minds were a hazard at a working fire, or so he'd had drilled into him over and over and over again.
"Roy, you okay?"
He tried to smile but just couldn't summon any kind of positive feeling, or much of any feeling at all come to think of it. He sighed; that seemed to be coming pretty naturally.
"Yeah," he paused, trying to remember Shafer's first name. "Yeah, I am, or I will be anyway. What do you hear about replacements?"
Shafer pushed his helmet back up off his forehead and rubbed a hand at his hairline.
"I know a guy who works at HQ," he flung an arm in the direction of whichever chief had taken over as Incident Commander, "and he said that they're trying to bring B-shift crews in early for Station 22, Engine 51, and Squad 36, and bring in some guys individually to tag out the heat exhaustion or smoke inhalation cases. But the phones are out of service all over Carson City, West Carson, Gardena, Torrance and Lomita so Headquarters is having a hell of a time getting in touch with any of the guys who live locally."
Shafer hadn't said a word about replacements for Squad 51 and with the way his luck seemed to be running today, they'd end up with Hookrader as their replacement Captain, if only because he lived in El Segundo and presumably had phone service. He wished he knew where Ben Collins lived. Hell, he'd take Dick Hammer over Hookrader if anyone asked and he knew for a fact that Hammer didn't live locally.
"And speaking of phones being down," Shafer said, and his voice dropped in both volume and tone. He nodded in the direction of Engine 51. "I gotta admit, it hadn't occurred to me that someone was going to have to go do home visits for the injured guys who live in this area but when Houts did his walk around…"
"Houts was here?" Roy said, flabbergasted.
Shafer shrugged. "Still is, as far as I know. This is a big f'ing deal, Roy. Lead story on every news channel including national news, according to my brother-in-law."
Roy blinked at him.
"The guy I know at HQ." Shafer puffed out an embarrassed exhale. "My wife's older brother. He's some kind of staff guy. Anyway, when Houts did his walk around, Harrison and Stoker both asked him straight out if they could go out with whoever was notifying the emergency contacts for their crews…"
Roy already knew the answer since Stoker was still manning Engine 51.
"…but without any replacements, and with both of their Engines being an essential component in relaying water to the crews on scene..." Shafer shrugged and his mouth twisted into something mocking. "Blah, blah, blah. You get the idea."
It would have been nice for the Stanley, Kelly and Lopez families to see a familiar face when they got the news; Roy wished he had thought of it himself.
Maybe it was a married guy thing to obsess about it so much, which is why Johnny didn't get it, since he didn't have anyone waiting or worrying at home, someone with an abiding interest in local news reports and a conflicted relationship with a ringing telephone. Every time he thought about Karen Stanley or Mrs. Kelly or Mrs. Lopez hearing a doorbell ring at this time of the morning, what he heard was the doorbell for his own home. He pictured Joanne being woken by the sound of it; woken by the repeated ringing or maybe someone leaning on the bell hard and long enough to wake her from sleep or to get the dog barking, which would wake her. He could plainly imagine the look that would freeze her face as she fumbled for a robe, knowing what that doorbell ring might signify.
"So who's doing the notifications?"
"Not sure," Shafer admitted. "I think Houts said that they had off-duty Battalion Chiefs and some Company Officers out doing it, but he didn't say who."
Roy changed his mind: Hookrader as a replacement Captain for this shift was tolerable; it was a hell of a lot better option than Hookrader doing any notifications, especially for anyone from Station 51. He wouldn't wish that job on anyone but he hoped that they'd asked someone with people skills, someone like Ben Stone maybe.
He heard the thud of boots against pavement and turned to see Gage trotting back towards the triage area, expression closed off and thoughtful.
Roy nodded in Stoker's direction. "He doing okay?"
Gage stopped, caught his breath and then turned a sharp-eyed gaze in his direction. "I dunno, Roy. Are you?"
DeAngelo was back by 0100 and the four of them manned the triage area, rinsing eyes with saline, providing O2 to firefighters who ate some smoke but not too much smoke, and applying silver sulfadiazine to burns that could be treated on scene. They took turns taking patients in to Rampart when the smoke inhalation, heat exhaustion or the burn demanded it.
Between patients, they watched the fire.
Two firefighters stumbled their way toward the triage area at about 0230 and he and Gage went out to meet them.
"He's got a burn on his leg," one of the men said, between coughs.
"Only because you knocked me into that support beam, you jackass," said the other, with more affection in his tone than in his words.
Both wore helmets that said 127, which carried a special, unspoken obligation, at least for DeSoto and Gage, not that they wouldn't have taken good care of them anyway.
"Okay, how about you take a seat over here," Roy said, steering the guy with the burn towards a blanket. "Johnny, you want to…"
"Yeah," Gage said, already reaching out a hand to the fireman with a bad cough. "Hey, why don't you grab a seat while my partner treats your buddy and let me take a listen to that cough you got going."
Roy reached for his shears automatically, running them up the fabric of the uniform trousers, wishing not for the first time that night that the crews on scene had gotten called out just a little later, late enough that they might have been wearing turnout pants rather than the blue fabric ones. He took the burn kit that DeAngelo handed him, draped sterile gauze over the burned calf and snipped the top of the saline bag.
He nodded a quiet thanks to DeAngelo who crouched down next to them, fingertips on the patient's left wrist.
"How's it going in there?"
It was sufficient to pull his patient's attention away from Johnny listening with a stethoscope to what sounded like a case of smoke inhalation on the other guy, which was at least partly Roy's intent.
"Bad," the guy from 127s said, lips tight slashes in a grim face. "Both back staircases are completely gone now, stairs, rails, platforms, you name it, all came crashing down. Useless except as chimneys, and they're a little too good at that."
Roy nodded, moving his saline stream steadily over the burn. He had heard the thunder of falling metal platforms and treads more than an hour earlier and Cap had predicted it at least ninety minutes before that.
"Fire jumped up the cable risers to the third floor. You have any idea how many insulated copper cables they have up on that floor?" the man demanded. "Try tens of thousands, maybe a hundred, two hundred thousand. Tons of fuel, almost no ventilation on that floor, not that we haven't been trying, you know. Cutting through those concrete walls is a bitch and a half. We've gone through every blade we brought and my Lieutenant went begging for spares." He shifted, unwittingly moving his bad leg, and hissed in pain. "How bad?"
"It'll hurt less if you try not to move it."
Roy waited until DeAngelo finished listening to the patient's lungs before he said anything else.
"It's not too bad," he said gently, "probably second degree, but it's over enough surface area that I'm gonna send you in."
He watched closely, waiting for the instinctive, almost automatic objection he expected, but the man took a deep breath and then sagged back. All the fight in him had been sapped by the fire.
"Yeah, okay," he said. "What about Sheridan? He all right?"
Roy looked to his right, where Gage had Sheridan on O2 and was talking quietly on the biophone.
"Something tells me you'll be sharing a ride."
He was certain now that while the walls of this sturdy little fort of a building might still be standing, its contents were completely lost. Someone in charge must have agreed because orders were given: at 0430, they pulled everyone out of the building.
He felt as if he'd been awake and in motion for a full 48 hour shift, maybe a 72. He'd heard some departments still did those but he couldn't imagine how their guys functioned. There was usually some sleep on a shift but it was never a guarantee.
He'd started wondering if 127's Lieutenant might have gotten it right when he said the fire might burn until Thanksgiving if they didn't get more water on it. He wasn't sure how much water this one was going to need. Would Castaic Lake be enough? How about Littlerock Reservoir? Maybe they should just redirect the Aqueduct system to this location.
And then someone walked into the triage area wearing a turnout coat and a Captain's helmet that said 51 and Roy accepted that he'd started to hallucinate, probably from exhaustion. He'd personally transported Captain Stanley to Rampart and had helped Brackett stabilize him enough for exploratory surgery. As of an hour ago, 51's Captain was still in surgery.
"DeSoto," the hallucination said. "Any word from the hospital on Hank, Lopez or Kelly?"
He stared at the helmet, trying to make sense of this figment of his imagination until gradually his eyes drifted down to the face under the helmet's brim.
Ben Collins stared back at him, pale blue eyes squinting, jaw shifting in a display of worry that Roy had never before seen from 51's B-shift Captain.
"Yeah, okay," Collins said with a look Roy couldn't quite interpret. "I just came from the IC. You and Gage are going to pack up here and take the Squad back to the Station. My guys will take over, resupply, whatever needs doing. They didn't want to pull the Engine from the scene because she's at the front of the relay, so my Engine crew came here instead. Dawson is going to give Stoker the keys to his car."
Roy nodded. He felt a presence besides him and he knew it was Johnny, which was good because Johnny rarely had a problem talking and for some reason right now, Roy couldn't seem to come up with the right thoughts or words, much less actually speak them.
"I'm sorry we couldn't get here sooner but with the phone system being down, it was hell to reach everyone. Dawson," Collins jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the B-Shift Engineer who was walking towards Engine 51, "and I ended up having to go out to their homes to roust Hagan and Cooper out of bed 'cause we couldn't get through." He looked at Gage. "Any news?"
"No news yet, Cap," Gage said, and Roy was shocked at how raspy he sounded, as if he'd been eating smoke instead of treating for it. "We took 'em in around midnight and I don't think Rampart was really prepared for how many guys we ended up bringing." He titled his head towards the paramedics from 28s who were listening in but not participating. "Eddie Shafer did the last run to Rampart about an hour ago. Squad 36's guys had completed their breathing treatment," and he shuddered from his less than fond personal memories of those, "but our crew and the guys from 22s were still being treated."
"Okay, you guys can head out," Collins said and he looked them both up and down. "Assuming either of you two is fit to drive the Squad back."
"I got it, Cap," Gage said immediately, faster than Roy could open his mouth. For a change, he didn't feel particularly inclined to argue the point.
Collins didn't look entirely convinced.
"You're probably safe to get back to the barn; it's a short trip. I know you're going to want to head to the hospital after that but you need to get some rack time first. Just do it and don't even bother arguing with me. I'm not sure either of you is safe behind a wheel right now, and Hank'll have my ass if I let you try."
"I'll get them where they need to go, Cap."
Collins whirled; none of them had heard or seen Stoker coming up behind him. The B-Shift Captain focused on Stoker, evaluating him, and then nodded.
"Okay." He looked around and then relaxed his shoulders a little and gave them something that slightly resembled a smile. "Go on, get out of here. You're relieved."
Chapter 10: Fine
Karen Stanley's eyes were red-rimmed and swollen and her cheeks were streaked with the silvery trails of dried tears, all of which scared the living daylights out of him. In the four years that he'd known her, she'd never been anything other than perfectly composed and in control, and he couldn't shake the mental image of exactly how lifeless Hank Stanley had looked when he'd been lifted into the ambulance.
"He's in Recovery," she hiccupped. She sniffed and blew her nose on a damp handkerchief. "They say – both doctors said – that the surgery went well and that he should make a full recovery, whatever that means. One of them, the second one, said that he was going to be fine."
Her expression and her tightly clenched left fist clearly said that she wouldn't believe that until she actually saw her husband with her own eyes.
"But I think his definition of fine and mine are very different."
He almost opened his mouth to explain the difference between 'fine' and 'going to be fine,' but then his common sense kicked in so he nodded sympathetically instead.
"Just so you know," he said, trying for that reassuring tone that Cap used in these situations and pretty sure he was coming up short, "Roy DeSoto treated him on scene and I understand Dr. Brackett treated him in the ER, so he was in excellent hands."
She hiccupped again and pressed the handkerchief against her mouth.
"That bad, huh?" she said, voice wobbling a little and she huddled into her long cardigan as if she was cold.
He had no idea how to answer that. There was an unspoken rule for dealing with the wives of injured firefighters: reassure them but never outright lie to them, and there was no way he could do the first without violating the second.
"You're telling me that he was hurt badly enough," she stumbled on the words, "that he needed the best paramedic in the county and the best ER doctor in the state?"
"That's not what I meant…" he said immediately.
"Stop torturing him, Karen. He's trying to reassure you."
He didn't recognize the plump blonde woman who'd spoken up. Crammed full of the wives and other immediate family members of the injured firemen, as well as the extra seating to support them all, Brackett's office was stuffy and overly warm in a way that seemed more uncomfortable than the fire he'd not too recently left. The main ER waiting area was overflowing with off-duty fireman, from the rank and file up through at least one Deputy Chief, some of whom he recognized as he pushed his way through the noise and that particular concentration of testosterone and stifled anxiety that always accompanied a line of duty injury.
"Kathy Wozniak, Mike Stoker," Karen said, waving her hand between the two of them. "Mike is Hank's Engineer. Kathy's husband is…"
"Captain Wozniak from Station 22," he said, in nodding recognition. "Our other paramedic, John Gage, was the one that took care of your husband, ma'am."
"I don't want to be reassured," Karen said, voice firming into something recognizable. "No offense, Mike; I just want to see Hank. Actually, I'd really like for this entire day to be a bad dream. Do you know that Roy and John treated a friend of mine this afternoon? I still can't believe it; she's way too young for something like that," she shook her head, eyes widened in disbelief, "and I was so upset about Jackie the whole rest of the day and then…I mean I always knew it could happen but I guess I never really thought…." She swallowed and her expression slipped a little. "I need to see him, I need to hear my husband tell me that he's going to be okay, not some surgeon I've never met before."
"Me too," Mrs. Wozniak said fervently. "But, I wouldn't mind talking to your paramedic. I can't seem to get a straight answer about what happened to Dan."
And now he'd dug himself and Gage a hole that he wasn't sure they could climb out from.
He pushed his way from a crouch in front of Mrs. Stanley to his feet. "Let me see what I can find out."
And then because even if he wasn't the guy in charge of A shift, he was the second in command, he stepped carefully over handbags and the extended legs of people he didn't recognize – probably family members of the guys from 22s – until he reached Mateo Lopez, the eldest of Marco's siblings standing to the left of his mother's chair.
"¿Cómo es tu madre?"
"Preocupado. ¿Cualquier noticia sobre mi hermano?"
Mike shook his head and fumbled a little for the right words. "Voy a ver qué puedo aprender."
"¿Es el fuego sigue ardiendo?"
He nodded; he hadn't heard any news in the last hour that would indicate otherwise and even when the upper floors were brought under control, that cable vault would burn for a while.
Mateo nodded back at him and Stoker knelt briefly next to Marisol Lopez who smiled at him with watery eyes and patted his cheek. He didn't need to say anything else since he knew she'd heard every word he'd said to her eldest son; he was just paying respects to the Lopez family matriarch.
The Kelly family was four chairs over and he made his excuses as he sidled sideways and over and through the family bunched into those chairs, and by Steve Ferrara who was hunkered down in front of a woman whose face was buried in her hands, long blonde hair covering both sides, shrouding her face from view. Kelleher's wife? Maybe his girlfriend; could be either. He'd heard Mattie Kelleher's girlfriend looked a lot like the wife from whom he'd separated, but he'd tried to stay away from the salacious details. Chet would know.
He nodded to Ferrara whose expression was not particularly encouraging and then reached Mrs. Kelly.
Wiry, nervous Eileen Kelly didn't quite look old enough to be Chet's mother until one actually met her eyes, which was difficult as they moved continually around the room, anxious and seeking. Her smile was a slight thing and her fingers fluttered in her lap, moving through the decades of the rosary and mouthing the words to prayers she knew better than her children's names. The beads of it were Connemara marble, Chet had told him; a present he'd given his mother on the day he'd successfully completed his probationary year.
"Michael, is there any word? Any updates on my Chester?"
He ignored her predilection for full formal names; the only one who escaped it was Cap because she was more than happy to use his formal title instead.
"No, ma'am. I'm going to see if I can find out if there are any updates on Chet or the others, but wanted to check on you and your family first."
He pushed his way to the door of Brackett's office and through it to the relative coolness of the waiting room. Scanning the corridor, packed with more fireman than a standard First Alarm assignment, he sought and finally found someone in a white coat, standing next to John Gage who was leaning onto the counter where Dixie McCall usually held court.
"…though the severity of the tear is not entirely clear," Brackett was saying to Gage who was nodding. "We're going to have to wait until the swelling and inflammation go down before we determine whether surgery is required."
"Probably twisted or turned when the blast hit," Gage said as Stoker approached them.
Brackett shrugged. "There's really no way to know; at best we'd only be speculating. The head of Orthopedics will make the call but I think he'll try non-surgical treatment first, physical therapy and a knee brace, and continue monitoring." He grimaced. "Which would be fine for the average guy off the street, but knowing the physical demands of your jobs…"
"Yeah," Gage sighed. "You're talking months of trying a non-surgical solution and then probably a lot more months, maybe a year to recover if you have to do the surgery." He looked past Brackett and tried to paste on a smile that wasn't very convincing. "Hey, Mike. You're just in time for the latest updates. Chet's got an Anterior Cruciate Ligament tear in his right leg, meaning he totally messed up his knee without actually breaking any bones. He also has two broken ribs, first and second degree burns on his legs and right forearm and a ton of bumps and bruises."
So Chet was essentially fine except for not being able to walk or run or climb on his right leg, which was a prerequisite for doing his job. Months with no Chet Kelly at the Station loomed in his mind: quiet months, prank free, no Gage and Kelly sniping; it sounded dreary, it sounded awful.
Brackett sighed heavily and paced around the counter to the coffee pot where he poured himself a cup, but Stoker was conscious that his eyes never left them. He wasn't sure if it was the hollow look in Gage's eyes or the raspy voice but Brackett was eyeing his paramedic as if covertly diagnosing him.
"Marco's got a concussion; he lost consciousness for a couple of minutes and has some of the standard symptoms – headache, dizziness, light sensitivity, you know the list – plus a fractured ulna, bruising, muscle strain, and so on. The biggest worry is that he ate some of the smoke from that fire and the doc from Pulmonology is worried about his O2 Sats."
"Exactly how much smoke?" Mike asked carefully, trying to tamp down on his rising panic. "They were all wearing air bottles, you saw that, and I know for a fact Marco checks his gear as thoroughly as I do."
"The blast might have knocked his mask off, Mike," Gage said as he leaned further onto the counter, rocking gently back and forth. "You know that. Or perforated the hose. Who knows? We both know what chemicals were in the air inside there. Even a few minutes of breathing that air…"
Brackett stepped forward. "The paramedic on scene…"
"Eddie Shafer," Gage said.
"… intubated him as soon as he determined that Marco was showing a hint of upper airway edema. We did a bronchoscopy and saw a little inflammation, which we're treating, but it's confined to the upper airway. We don't see any in the lower airway passage or the alveoli. We'll continue to monitor it and his O2 sats, but for now he's doing okay."
Okay, but not fine, Stoker noted. Not even 'going to be fine.'
"Their families want to see them," he said. "I'm not sure who talked to Cap's wife or Mrs. Wozniak but they have a lot of questions and I'd like to get some answers for them, but most of all, they want to see their husbands. When is that going to be possible?"
Gage stood up suddenly and spun around to face Brackett, almost colliding with the doctor's coffee cup. He immediately raised his arms, apology or just making sure he couldn't do any further damage, Stoker wasn't exactly sure, and then rested his back against the counter. Over his shoulder, he said, "Doc was about to give me the update on Cap when you got here, Mike."
Brackett drained the coffee cup and then replaced it by the pot.
"He came through the surgery very well."
Brackett shook his head. "No time, Johnny. Dr. Cleary did an exploratory laparotomy and ended up doing a splenectomy, surgically repairing a laceration in the liver and resecting a piece of the small intestine that had been perforated…"
"Did he have to do an ileostomy?"
"No need. There was enough healthy small intestine left to sew the ends back together."
Gage let out a deep breath, relaxing back against the counter. "Good, I'd hate to be the one who had to explain that to his wife."
"Somebody needs to," Stoker interjected. "Someone needs to tell her what's going on. I've never see her so…" He mentally flailed, searching for the right word, "…distraught."
"Well, of course she is," Gage said. "I mean, what kind of wife wouldn't be kind of scared, considering."
"Actually, she was fine," Dixie said from behind Stoker. She strolled up to the counter, raised one perfectly groomed brow and Gage straightened and backed away from her counter, coming around to the front of it where he belonged. Then she frowned. "Where's Roy?"
"Home," Gage said. "Mike dropped him off on our way here."
"He wanted to see his wife, let her know that he was okay," Stoker added. "He said he'd get her to drive him over, meet us here."
"Smart man," Dixie said.
"So how did Cap's wife go from fine to distraught?" Gage said, scratching the back of his head and then rolling his neck, loosening the accumulated tension of the last twenty-four hours.
"Well maybe fine is a little bit of an exaggeration, but she's obviously made of tough stuff and held together pretty well when Dr. Cleary talked to her about the abdominal surgery, even asked a few insightful questions about the long term risks of his spleen being removed…"
"So…" Gage said and was instantly silenced with a look.
"It was when Dr. Hickman from Orthopedics finished talking to her about Hank's dislocated shoulder, fractured wrist and the fractured metacarpals and phalanges in his left hand…"
Suddenly Brackett groaned and covered his eyes with his right hand. "Don't tell me…"
"Oh, you better believe I'm going to tell you," Dixie said sharply. "They had to cut his wedding ring off to set the fractures and that idiot…"
Brackett winced, obviously and almost exaggeratingly winced.
"…tossed the pieces of the ring in with the medical waste." She huffed and glared at Brackett. "Again."
"Uh-oh," Gage said, quietly.
"Dix…" Brackett said.
"It's a wedding ring, Kel," she spat out, teeth clenched. "What kind of idiot…"
"A bachelor kind of idiot," he immediately replied, and then softened his response. "I'll talk to him."
"Good," she said. And then she smiled, one with a slight edge. "And when he complains to you about how I made his scrub nurse sort through all of the medical waste to retrieve the pieces of that ring…"
Stoker finally released the breath he'd been holding and Brackett started to laugh.
"You didn't!" he said, between laughs, in a voice that said he darn well knew she had.
"You bet your ass, I did," she said. "And after I sterilized them, I gave the pieces of that ring to Karen Stanley so she could have it remade if possible. That's when she started to cry."
Stoker swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and all four of them looked away for the necessary second or two that it took to regain composure and some measure of professional distance.
Then he cleared his throat.
"So," he said, "as I mentioned a little earlier, Cap's wife and Mrs. Wozniak would really like to see their husbands. And Marco and Chet's mothers didn't say so, but I'm pretty sure they'd really like to see their sons. I'm guessing Kelleher, Ostrander and van der Heijden's families want to see them too. When is that going to be possible?"
Dixie glanced at Brackett who looked back at her and they both frowned.
"Mike's our acting Cap," Gage said quickly.
Brackett looked at Gage and then back at Stoker. "Well, I'm not the treating physician…"
"You're the head of ER," Stoker interrupted, politely, firmly.
"Okay," Brackett said, taking a step back and then giving Stoker an obvious once-over. "I'm not the treating physician for Captain Wozniak so I'm not up to date on his condition – other than some generalities that I'm not at liberty to discuss since you're not the acting Captain for his station – but the treating physician, Dr. Schroeder, and I can meet with Mrs. Wozniak, answer her questions." He took a breath. "Your Captain's still in recovery and he's…"
"Groggy," Dixie interrupted. "Still very groggy. I just came from there."
Brackett grimaced. "I don't know whether that's the effects from the anesthesia or if his concussion is a contributing factor, but the when is going to depend on him, on when he's ready to be moved to a room. Probably ICU, since what he's presented with has been fairly typical primary blast injuries, meaning we're going to need to monitor him closely over the next 48 hours…"
"There was no sign of lung injury," Gage interrupted. "And no apnea or bradycardia."
"No," Brackett agreed. "But there are classic blast pattern abdominal injuries and what initially looked like a TM rupture. It turned out to be a hemotympanum without perforation but we'll have an ENT specialist in later today and run another skull series, just in case. And of course, we'll need to monitor his lungs."
Gage caught his eye and Stoker nodded unhappily, understanding and agreeing. Waiting and watching for possible new, life-threatening symptoms to manifest was not something that would go over well with Cap's wife, and it sure didn't fit his definition of 'going to be fine.'
"Chet is in the process of being moved to a room right now. As soon as he's settled," Brackett and Dixie exchanged another glance and she nodded, "his family can see him. He's awake but in a lot of discomfort so I'm going to guess that his doctor would ask for the visits to be fairly short. Dix'll be able to tell you the room."
Stoker nodded, waiting.
Brackett shifted and his face went through a few expressions, finally ending in a sigh.
"Marco's intubated and is receiving high-flow humidified oxygen to displace the carbon monoxide from his hemoglobin. Do you think his family is up for seeing that?"
Good question, Stoker thought and glanced over at Gage who was obviously worried. It was never easy seeing someone you knew personally breathing through a tube. Bad enough when it was a colleague or friend, it had to be substantially worse when it was a family member, especially a child, even a fully-grown adult child.
"I don't know," he said. "But I think the Pulmonologist and I should talk to Marco's brother and let him make that call."
"Fair enough," Brackett said. "I'll give Rosenblatt a call, have him meet you down here."
It was as if a silent signal had been given. Brackett turned around and picked up the phone and Dixie walked away, purposefully, but he had no idea where she was going. Gage shrugged and walked towards Stoker.
"You know, I'm not acting Captain," Stoker said in low voice, just for Gage's ears.
"So?" he said with a shrug. "You're our Engineer and we all know that you're gonna make a hell of a Captain one day, Mike. That's close enough in my book."
And then he walked past, headed towards the Ambulance Only entry where Roy DeSoto had just arrived.
Stoker stood there and watched him, wondering once again exactly why everyone on his shift seemed to think that he wanted to be a Captain.
Chapter 11: Costs
"Where's Joanne?" he asked, an honest question that also gave him time to run a quick evaluation of his partner.
Roy looked better than he had at the scene or at the station, a small subtle change that he couldn't quite categorize as a physical symptom or lack of one. His eyes were brighter and his expression was not as tight. He looked more like Roy and a lot less like some wax figure dummy version of his partner, which had about the same amount of animation as Roy had shown a few hours ago.
"She's parking the car," Roy said, with a look that said he knew exactly what Gage was doing. "You know, you could just ask me how I'm doing."
He shrugged. That would be a waste of time. "You'd just tell me that you're fine, when we both know you're not."
Roy sighed and then looked past him into the ER. "A lot of people here from the department. What's the word on our guys? Where are their families?"
He stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned up against the wall to wait for Joanne, realizing the second after he'd done so that leaning was the first step towards relaxing and one step closer to sitting, which would be a slippery slope that led directly to lying down and that if he wanted to stay in motion, he'd better not start on that slope. He forced himself to stand upright again with a sigh.
"Chet's wrecked his right knee, an ACL tear. That's gonna screw him up for months, if not longer," he said sourly. "Cap's out of surgery. The hemorrhaging was coming from his spleen, a lacerated liver and perforated small intestine, which explains a lot. And because he's been textbook primary blast injuries so far, they're worried about Blast Lung 'cause," he shrugged, "you never know." He then took a deep breath before moving onto the bad news. "Marco's carboxyhemoglobin levels are about 25%..."
Roy's mouth dropped open. "What the…?"
"Yeah, I don't know if he didn't have a good seal on his mask or if his breathing apparatus got damaged in the blast, but it's not good. The good news is that while there's some edema, it seems mostly contained to his larynx, not the lower airway or alveoli. He's on high flow O2 and we're just gonna have to wait and see if that clears out the carbon monoxide."
Roy nodded his head in the way he did when he was processing things, not actually agreeing with what had been said.
"Their families are Brackett's office because we have enough guys here…" he waved his arm to include the waiting room, "to practically send replacements over to the scene, and because, you know, they're a little shaken up and because every so often, some reporters come through to get reaction statements."
He'd overheard the hospital administrator - O'Neill? O'Connor? O'Rourke? Something like that – pestering Dixie about the fireman cluttering up the waiting room and the corridor. He hadn't heard what Dixie had said but he'd seen her face and the way the guy who definitely didn't look Irish reacted.
"I think the hospital's working on setting aside a conference room or office for the Department so they actually have room for patients and stuff."
Roy was giving him the reciprocal once over so he glared his recognition.
"What? You can do it to me but I can't do it to you?"
"Roy, I'm fine," he said, recognizing that the fact that his voice sounded like a rusty hinge probably wasn't his best means of convincing anyone of that fact. "I just need some more coffee or something."
"Or something," Roy agreed, turning to wrap his arms around his wife as she came through the doors.
He woke, cramped and feeling as if his entire body had been tied into a knot and then baked in a 400-degree oven. There really wasn't any room to stretch his limbs either, since Brackett's office was still crammed full of people, some coming, some going, others holding court in the chairs they'd occupied since very early morning. And he didn't think he could actually stand up without assistance.
"About time you woke up," Roy's voice said from somewhere over his right shoulder.
He'd turn to acknowledge it if he could. If his right shoulder would slink back into its socket and let him turn his head.
His hands seemed to work though, and so did his fingers, so he rubbed his eyes and then the rest of his face as if he was rubbing life back into his skin.
"Wha time izzit?"
"Two o'clock," an unknown female voice from somewhere to his left replied.
It was a nice voice, a voice that definitely warranted further investigation, when he'd untangled himself and figured out how to move. And then he paused, trying to figure out if that was two o'clock AM or PM.
"Fourteen hundred hours," Roy said. "That's about four hours of sleep so you're right on schedule…"
His stomach growled, loud enough that a woman across the room looked up, as if to identify what on earth was making that noise or maybe hoping it was some kind of air conditioning unit turning on. He could have used a little A/C; he felt as if his face was burning.
"Yes sirree," Roy chortled. "Right on time."
Something else was making its needs known with an even greater sense of urgency, and Gage squirmed in his seat until his feet were flat on the ground. Then he tilted himself forward, out of the chair, grabbing the armrests at the very last minute to keep from falling and to help launch himself to his feet. And he managed to do all of that despite the quiet laugh that was being masked as a cough by his partner.
"Laugh it up, Roy," he said, not really recognizing his own voice.
Except Roy being Roy, didn't really laugh, not loud anyway; he snickered quietly instead.
He used his hands as much as his eyes, reaching out and grabbing the backs of chairs, muttering "hey, how are you doing?' to those both familiar and stranger as he made his way out of the oven that was Brackett's office and into the relief of the corridor and towards the men's room.
He really needed three arms, he'd decided: his left hand jammed up against the cool tile of the wall to keep him standing upright, his right hand to take care of the reason he was there in the first place, and a third hand to cover his eyes from the glaring brightness. Was it entirely necessary to light a men's room as if it was a surgical suite? Closing his eyes only brought partial relief because he could still see the glare, backlit in red, through his eyelids.
"That was a hell of an expensive rescue, Glenn."
He heard the voices as they came through the door but he didn't turn his head or open his eyes, assuming they were there for the same reason he was. It was impolite to actually, you know, really look at the other guys in the men's room.
"That rescue cost the Department seven experienced men, almost two entire Engine Companies including their Captains, for God knows how long, some maybe permanently. You know it's brushfire season, you know we're already shorthanded. What the hell were you thinking sending all of them in? Where do you think we're going to find replacements?"
Awkward, awkward, awkward, was the only word running through his head. That and a red flare of anger, as his brain stumbled into coherency from his all too brief four-hour nap. Those were not the voices of your average firefighters and this really wasn't where he wanted to be.
The other man said something quietly that Gage couldn't quite make out.
"No," the first, louder voice replied. "The civilian that Squad 22 went in after was just pronounced: carbon monoxide poisoning. Two men went in after a dead man, and then it was just compounded by multiple search and rescue efforts, sending in one team after another."
If his eyes weren't closed already, Gage would have closed them now. Instead he sagged a little against his left arm and finished up at the urinal. Now what? He couldn't just walk by the guys who were talking near the door, could he?
He thought about it for a minute. Yeah, he could.
He took his time about it though, gave the men at the door fair warning by detouring to the sink to splash water on his face. The cool water felt wonderful and he had to stop himself from filling the sink and submerging his head in it as he might at home or at the Station. Patting his face dry with a paper towel, he glanced into the mirror over the sink and saw the two men watching him, with narrowed and appraising glances.
As he walked to the door, Chief Miller, the quieter of the two men both wearing Chiefs uniforms, nodded to him.
Since he and Chief Miller weren't all that close, he assumed that still being in uniform and wearing a name badge had made the recognition a bit easier on the Chief, who had worked a shift at least as long as he had, probably longer, and looked it.
He nodded back. "Chief," he rasped. "Fire's knocked down?"
Miller nodded. "A little before 1300. Telephone Company's waiting to get in there, to start recovery operations, but the crews on the scene are still doing overhaul." He paused. "51s did good work, Gage. My prayers are with the men who were injured." His lips thinned. "And my wife is up in the ICU waiting room with some of their families. God willing, we'll have them back with us on the job soon."
Gage had never met the other man but his insignia was that of a Deputy Chief and he just nodded grimly in Gage's direction.
"Thank you, sir," he said, to Miller. And then because his partner wasn't there to stop him, he said, "Ferrara and Kelleher might have gone in after a dead man, but they didn't know it. We never do, but we go in and try to get them out. At least their families know that we tried to save them. Or him, in this case." He scratched his head and added a belated, "sir."
"Understood, Gage," Miller said.
Even he knew that was a dismissal so he nodded and slipped sideways between the Chiefs and through the door.
Back in the hallway, he took a deep breath as it occurred to him that he really had no idea who the other Chief was and he might have just done something Roy or Cap would consider incredibly inappropriate, idiotic even.
Sighing, he decided to go in search of something to eat and stuck his hand in his pocket to check for money.
He looked up and swung his head back and forth in the corridor, recognizing Stoker's voice but not seeing him.
"Hey, Gage. In the waiting area."
Of course. Hard to pick out one firefighter in a sea of firefighters. Even off duty, they tended to group together and somehow blend. Stoker was talking to a fireman slightly taller than him, dark-haired, mustached, grimy as if he'd just come off duty and vaguely familiar.
"Jack Haggerty, Johnny Gage," Stoker said. "Johnny, Jack is Snorkel 127's…"
"Lieutenant," Gage said, his brain finally firing and connecting the dots. He unleashed a real smile on the other man. "Hey," he said, reaching out to shake hands. "We owe you and your guys big time."
Haggerty grasped hands but shook his head. "Like I was telling this guy," he said with a nod towards Stoker. "Once you start that, you end up with 22s owing 51s and then 51s owing 127s and then 127s owing 51s since I understand you and your partner took care of my guys when they were stupid enough to eat some of that smoke and fall into a support beam and then who the hell knows who owes what."
"Nope," Gage said, still grinning. "I'm pretty sure we still end up owing you and yours for getting our guys out of there. How about you let me buy you a cup of coffee or something to eat in the cafeteria?" His left hand fumbled for the wallet he was pretty sure was in his back pocket and he saw Stoker smirk slightly in amusement.
"Another time," Haggerty said with a final handshake. "I just stopped in to check on my guys, who it turns out were already released, and check on yours. I'm pulling OT at 18s tomorrow so I need to get a nap, then some food and then some more sleep." His eyes shifted back to Stoker. "Keep me posted, okay?"
Stoker nodded and the two exchanged the kind of shoulder slaps that told Gage they knew each other pretty well.
"Hey, Mike," he said after a moment, and then he stopped and looked around and decided that maybe a little privacy was warranted. "How about you buy us some coffee and something to eat and I pay you back when I remember where I left my wallet, okay?"
In the cafeteria, over coffee and cheeseburgers, a side of fries and a slice of slightly battered blueberry pie, he told Stoker what he'd overheard and Stoker being Stoker, just listened and nodded at the right times.
"I'm glad I'm not a Chief," Stoker said when Gage was finally finished.
Stunned wordless, he over-poured the creamer he was adding to his coffee and it splashed onto the table.
"Shit," he said, under his breath because there were nurses and doctors and all sorts of people he didn't know sitting at the tables around them and he'd probably exceeded his quota for annoying people in positions of authority today. "See what happens when you go along and just say something so completely…. I don't know, out there, unexpected, not related. You know what I mean."
Stoker handed him a fistful of napkins and helped him blot up the cream.
"A non sequitur?"
"Yeah," Gage said, waving his hand in Stoker's direction in agreement.
"It wasn't actually a non sequitur since it was directly relevant to what you were saying," Stoker countered. "I don't know why Cap wants that job."
Gage blinked. Somewhere he'd lost the conversational thread, or maybe Mike had hijacked it.
"Well, I know why he wants the job, but every step away from the line just removes you from the actuality of firefighting. It becomes more about planning and deploying resources or ensuring you have sufficient resources to cover the fires. It's all about looking at the forecasts and run rates and where are the busiest stations and why are they the busiest ones and what do you do to distribute that volume of calls and manpower more equitably, and less about personally saving lives and property." Stoker shifted back in his chair and stretched his legs under the table. "I think the company officer is the boundary between fighting fires and managing firefighting. After that, you lose the hands on lessons, the immediate interaction with the people who depend on us."
It was, without a doubt, the longest bit of talking he'd ever heard from Stoker.
"Which, I understand is absolutely required," Stoker continued. "We couldn't do our jobs if we didn't have the necessary resources or had to cover a territory twice what we have, meaning double the calls or more. I just think when you spend so much time planning and allocating, you lose track of why we do what we do."
He nodded, mostly because he thought that's what Stoker was expecting. He was still processing the words and teasing out Stoker's underlying meaning.
"Plus, what else would we have done?" he said. "Not gone in after the guy?"
Stoker smiled at him, some kind of odd mixture of amusement and understanding, and then nodded. "You're right. From every point of assessment, the building was structurally sound, the search teams were properly equipped and trained, and it was about as safe as you're ever going to get at a working fire to send men inside. What else would we have done?"
Gage crumpled up the creamer stained napkins, tossed the wad onto the table and crooked an eyebrow. "And speaking of the search teams…?"
"Yeah," Stoker nodded. "Forgot you slept through some of the updates. Why don't we head upstairs and I'll fill you in."
They shared space in the elevator with an older couple who were obviously fretting about whomever they were visiting, so they kept the conversation non-specific until the doors opened and the couple stepped out on the third floor. Mike stabbed the button for six again.
"Cap and Marco are on six, in ICU, so let's start there," he said as soon as the door closed behind the other visitors. "Cap woke up again, and this time he stayed awake long enough for Karen to spend some time with him, which is good because she's trying to do the Captain's wife thing and support Marco's and Chet's families but I think she's still pretty scared herself."
Gage stretched against the elevator wall, still unkinking his back and shoulders. "He had major surgery. Probably going to sleep a lot the next few days."
"Yep," Stoker said. "They've got Marco in ICU too, monitoring his lungs and blood gasses, which from what Roy said still aren't all that great."
"It takes time to clear out the CO," he said, an automatic reassurance that didn't do much to calm the stab of alarm he himself felt at the update. Carbon monoxide on its own was bad enough, but there were dealing with a whole slew of other toxic inhalants on top of CO.
The elevator doors opened and they both turned automatically to the right, all too familiar with the exact location of the waiting room for the ICU.
Chapter 12: Two Minutes
"You don't sound so good."
Chet coughed again, hunching his shoulders and curling forward with each cough as if it would lessen the pain. Finally, he tilted his face towards Roy and glared. "Really? What gave me away?"
"Did they check your lungs?"
He was supposed to be visiting and reassuring but he couldn't help but worry. Chet had been inside that building when the fuel tank blew and was as much at risk for pulmonary injury as Marco or Cap.
"Every freakin' hour," Chet said, wincing as he leaned back against the pillows stacked up behind him. "If it's not a blood test, it's blowing in some damn tube or some other doctor I've never seen before, and probably won't ever see again, sticking an ice cold stethoscope thingy against my skin and asking me to take a deep breath or six. With broken ribs!" Wide-eyed and put upon, Kelly batted his eyelashes in a way that probably bought him some sympathy from the less experienced nurses and even elicited a mild twinge from Roy who knew better. "And they keep checking my pee," he moaned.
Roy laughed. He couldn't help it, and then tucked his chin down into his chest to quiet down. Alex van der Heijden was sleeping in one of the beds on the other side of the four-bed ward near the room's only window, which streamed late afternoon sunlight onto van der Heijden's wife. She glanced over at Roy, puzzled and possibly slightly annoyed that anyone could find humor in this situation.
"I keep telling them that I'm the knee guy," Kelly said, gesturing at his right leg, propped up and immobilized, the knee puffy and swollen under the bandaging. "Not the lung guy."
"Yeah, well you know how it goes with blast injuries."
"Forty-eight hours." Kelly sighed. "Well, it's not like I'd be walking outta here in less than that anyway." He morosely waved a hand in the direction of his right leg. "Or walking at all, any time soon."
"You don't know that," Roy said, in a practiced and professionally reassuring tone that worked pretty well on most of his patients.
Chet Kelly blew his lips together derisively.
"Hey, Roy, give me a little credit here. Even if I didn't have a little anatomical knowledge from my first aid training, I read the papers, especially the sports section. I read all the time about these types of injuries ending a guy's season, and sometimes his entire career."
Roy leaned back in his chair and let his lips relax into a smile.
"You're right," he said, absolutely straight faced. "You'll probably never play football in the National Football League." He felt his expression twitching behind his control. "But once the swelling goes down and the orthopedic surgeons re-evaluate your knee…"
"Yeah, yeah," Kelly said with a heartfelt sigh, looking away to his left, toward an empty bed. "Tell me the latest on Marco, Cap and the guys from 22s, okay?"
Roy nodded, understanding Chet's unspoken request.
"Marco's still intubated, still getting high flow O2 and there's been some improvement in his carboxyhemoglobin levels…"
"But not enough," Chet interrupted. "Right? That's what Bobby Harrison and some of the guys visiting Ostrander said. What about a hyperbaric chamber?"
Roy rubbed his face and sighed. "It's still too early to make that call, Chet. It takes time to displace the CO from his hemoglobin, especially when he probably also inhaled chlorine and some other toxins. The docs are treating him and he's making progress; just a little slower than any of us would like. There are complications sometimes with hyperbaric treatment. They don't want to use that unless they really have to."
Kelly's chin dipped towards his chest and he looked away every time Roy tried to make eye contact. Not good.
"So what else did Bobby Harrison and the guys visiting Ostrander say?"
There was a slight movement, just enough that he could actually see the distress in Kelly's eyes that he wouldn't freely admit.
"They said Kelleher's in bad shape," Kelly said in a low voice, pitched to not carry across the ward. "That he hasn't regained consciousness and someone overheard one of the doctors mention hypoxia."
Roy nodded, frowning. He'd heard the same news shared in whispers and undertones. Brackett's face had just twitched when pressed for an answer that he wouldn't give.
"I didn't hear that from any of the doctors," he said, trying to walk a line between acknowledging the element of truth and giving it some sort of official sanction by weight of his paramedical credentials. "But that's always a worry with a severe smoke inhalation case." He waited a beat. "Marco's been conscious since they got him to the triage area, you know that, right?"
Kelly nodded, looking unconvinced.
"They said both Captains were messed up pretty bad. That Captain Wozniak," he shot a quick glance towards van der Heijden's wife and dropped his voice even further, "broke his back, that he's paralyzed." A rapid swallow and an accusing glance. "And that Cap almost died on the way in."
Roy shifted in his seat, still unnerved and not exactly ready to talk about it. "Cap's going to be okay," he said. "He had some internal bleeding that meant we had to get him to Rampart right away, but the surgeons took care of it. He's going to be fine."
Kelly licked his lips.
"So why are they all in ICU?"
"Marco's intubated and they really want constant eyes on him while they monitor his progress, okay?" He waited for the reluctant nod. "Cap had that surgery and they're keeping an eye on his lungs because of the blast, same as you. He's passing his neuros, his chest x-rays look good; he should be fine. And I don't think anyone knows whether Captain Wozniak will be paralyzed; it's just too soon to tell."
"Roy," Kelly said, breathless with incredulity. "He broke his back."
"He broke a vertebra," Roy said. "People do that without damaging the spinal cord."
"And go back to work? Active duty for the Department?"
He didn't really have an answer for that so he let Kelly read it in his expression.
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Kelly snorted. "Maybe he and I can sit next to each other working a desk at Headquarters. Or maybe since he's a Captain, I'll be the one fetching his coffee or answering his phone. I bet I'll be able to walk well enough to do that."
He sighed in exasperation. He was supposed to be the one with patience but between Gage and Kelly, he seemed to exhaust it on a regular basis.
"Kind of jumping the gun, aren't you, Chet? You think you can wait more than…" he glanced at his wristwatch, "seventeen or so hours before deciding that your career as you know it is over?"
Kelly shrugged. "Hey, an ACL tear is nothing to take lightly."
"Neither is a broken leg," Roy said. "Somehow Johnny went back to work after breaking his leg. Twice."
That was either going to generate a patented Chet Kelly rebuttal or silence. He waited a second, studied the narrowed blue eyes and mentally congratulated himself. He waited another minute or two to let Chet chew things over in his head.
"They let Ostrander go home?"
Kelly nodded, slowly, distractedly.
"Yeah, about an hour or two ago. Put his elbow back in place, splinted it up, gave him some good drugs and his wife took him home. He'll probably be out a couple of weeks, maybe even long enough to be home on Thanksgiving, or at least that's what his wife hopes."
And speaking of wives, Roy really needed to go check on his. She'd managed to get someone to pick up the kids from school and watch them so that she could stay here at the hospital for him and for the families of his injured shift mates. He'd left her in the ICU waiting room, splitting her time between Karen Stanley and Marisol Lopez.
"Two minutes," Kelly said in a murmur, as if he was saying it to himself.
He raised an eyebrow. "Two minutes what?"
Kelly looked up, met his eyes finally.
"Ostrander said that if they'd found Kelleher even two minutes earlier, that they could have gotten him out of the building before that interior wall collapsed. If they hadn't been trapped in there until we dug them out, maybe his smoke inhalation wouldn't be so bad."
Roy nodded. That two minute difference might have been enough that the rest of 22s crew would not have been injured, and 51's Engine crew wouldn't have had to go in after them.
"Yeah," he said, searching for some way to keep Chet from dwelling on his ACL tear and what-ifs. He scratched the back of his neck and thought for a minute. "Hey, where did you guys go after you put Captain Wozniak's Stokes on the Snorkel? I noticed that you weren't hanging around the window."
At the time, he'd been puzzled. After the explosion, after he'd had time to recall everything that had happened, he'd been stunned at how lucky they'd been, struck dumb with gratitude.
"Back to the Switch Control Room," Kelly said. "You know how long it takes the Snorkel to go up and down so Cap decided it was a good use of time to make sure that we weren't leaving any extrication tools inside, ours or 22's. We picked up 22s stuff…" his eyes slid away for a second, "and our halligan, which Cap gave me a little shit about, and were on our way back when that fuel tank blew." He paused and then met Roy's eyes. "I know what you're trying to say here, Roy."
"Two minutes," Roy said.
"Yeah, okay, I get it. If that fuel tank blew two minutes earlier than when it actually did, you're right. We would have been near that window, still loading the guys from 22s." He took a deep breath. "Heck, if Cap didn't make us go after those tools, we would have been standing there when it did go." He was silent for a few seconds. "Hell of a long way to fall."
"And if the fuel tank blew two minutes later than when it actually happened…"
Kelly frowned. "Wozniak's Stokes wouldn't have fallen 'cause you would've already moved him to the treatment area..."
"But you guys would have been back from picking up that stuff; you'd have been standing at that window."
Kelly shook his head roughly. "Don't think so, Roy. Snorkel's slow but not that slow. We'd probably have been riding down in the bucket, safe and sound." He paused and in the quiet, Roy could hear the screech of metal chair legs pushed across the floor, followed by the clacking of heels as van der Heijden's wife made her way to the door.
"It was a nice try though," Kelly said, with an encouraging shrug. "Things just don't line up that way; it's not like there's any logic to them."
He would have normally taken the stairs from the third floor to the sixth floor but he was having a hard enough time lifting his feet the centimeters necessary to walk without tripping; stairs were beyond him right now.
The elevator chimed, the doors slid open and his penance for his laziness, for his exhaustion was standing in front of him.
"Hello, Karen," he said, as he entered that cramped space, filled by the emotional presence of the one person he hadn't specifically been avoiding but hadn't sought out either, and two men, one who looked vaguely familiar and the other a total stranger.
He glanced at the panel: the sixth floor button was pushed. Of course it was. Based on the shoulder purse she carried, she'd gone down to the cafeteria or maybe even left the hospital. Either way she was on her way back to ICU.
"Roy," she said. "I'm so glad we ran into you."
Her voice shamed him a little. She sounded happy and grateful to see him.
"Edmund," she said, "I'd like to introduce you to Roy DeSoto. Roy's the paramedic that brought Jackie in earlier…" she paused. "God, I mean yesterday. It's been a day already, hasn't it."
And then Roy was shaking hands with the stranger, a middle-aged man with who looked disheveled; his suit rumpled as if he'd slept in it, or had been wearing it for the last twenty-four hours, maybe more, maybe both. He smelled like burned coffee and stale cigarette smoke, as if both had soaked into his thinning hair or his suit jacket.
"Karen tells me that having a paramedic respond so quickly, having the medical knowledge to know that Jackie had to go to the hospital right away, well," he paused, cleared his throat and glanced away for a second. "It might make the difference."
His throat felt as it was closing up as he reached for the standard responses, his deferrals to the doctors making the calls at the other end of the phone. Then his gaze flickered over to Karen's face and saw an echo of his own exhaustion, of his own emotions.
He licked his lips and tried for more than the usual answers.
"What made the difference was that Karen realized that your wife needed medical help. Fortunately, we were nearby and it was only a few minutes to the hospital. How is she doing?"
They reached the fourth floor, the Cardiac Care Unit, before Jackie's husband could tell him anything more than what he already knew, so he shook the man's hand and then leaned back against the wall.
"She's alive," Karen said. "But she's still in the Cardiac Care Unit."
For now, he thought. Morton had given him the prognosis and it wasn't encouraging, despite the pacemaker that had been inserted.
The elevator bell rang and the doors slid open to the sixth floor. Roy put his arm across the edge, holding the door open and Karen shifted her purse over her shoulder and walked through, followed closely by the other man in the elevator, the one that looked vaguely familiar.
They all turned automatically to the right and as if she'd caught him wondering, she said, "I went home. I needed to see the kids. After we…" Her expression shifted slightly. "Well, anyway I kept the kids home from school today and Sam's wife, Donna, stayed with them. I can't call home, obviously, so Sam's been going back and forth to let them know how their Dad's doing, that he's going be okay, which worked for most of the day." She gave him a tentative smile. "I just needed to see them."
He bet they'd needed to see her too. From the breadcrumbs she'd dropped, he finally placed the familiar looking guy. Sam had some gray in his dark blond hair, but his features and eyes were similar enough to Karen's that the relationship was obvious, if you looked for it. Roy was pretty sure he'd met Karen's brother at some Stanley hosted barbeque a few years back so he nodded a greeting, which was returned.
"They want to see him themselves, of course, but Kate has a cold and even though Hank was already exposed to her germs, that was before he was hurt." She blinked away the sudden sheen of moisture in her eyes. "The doctors told me about the vaccinations and the antibiotics they're giving him because of his spleen. They told me about the risk of sepsis and other complications. I can't risk her getting him sick. Not now. And Jack's only twelve…"
"Thirteen next week," Sam said in a quiet voice.
"…and I didn't know if there's an age restriction for ICU. That's probably something that I should know…"
Roy didn't know either. Some hospitals were starting to change policies on the number of allowed visitors and whether children under a certain age were permitted in certain units but he'd been fortunate enough that he'd never had to worry about whether his kids could visit him, or other family members, in a hospital and he'd just as soon continue in his ignorance.
"…so I told them when he's moved to a regular room, assuming Kate's over her cold, they can come every day to spend some time with him."
"I bet he'd like that," Roy said. "Is he even up for visitors right now?"
He'd only seen his Captain once, briefly, since he'd left him in the Emergency Room almost sixteen hours earlier. Stanley had been sedated, pale and on oxygen, left shoulder immobilized after the closed reduction, left arm strapped into position across his chest with a plaster cast from mid-forearm to his splinted fingers.
He'd seen Marco twice, each for only a brief few minutes. Marco was still intubated: the O2 making slow progress against the CO, the Chlorine and the long list of toxins he might have breathed and while the red discoloration from the hemoglobin bound to CO was somewhat reduced, there was still far too much of a pink flush in his face and a blue tinge to his lips for the Pulmonologist to talk about recovery with any confidence.
At some level he understood that Cap's wife and Marco's mother and siblings needed the carefully parceled out bits of visiting times far more than he or the rest of 51's A-shift did but he had to keep reminding himself of that. The prayers from Marco's family were probably more effective than anything he could offer any way.
"Not really," Karen said, sighing and shifting her purse on her shoulder again. "He's sleeping so much I'm not sure he even knows if I'm there or not, and when he does wake up, he just wants to know if everyone's okay. I'm not sure what to tell him."
They made another right into a long straight hallway. A hundred yards further down on the left, just outside the double-door entrance to ICU, was a room furnished with uncomfortable plastic and vinyl furniture filled with anxious families. They walked towards it.
"You can tell him that Chet's already complaining and that Marco's doing better." That was the news that Cap would want first, they both knew that. "Tell him that one of the guys from 22s has already been released and another will go home tomorrow or the day after." Then he sighed because there wasn't really any good news left to share.
His eyes were drawn to the ICU doors opening, to Brackett, easily recognizable even with his back turned, in a white doctor's coat and the striped trousers that Roy supposed were fashionable, talking to an older bespectacled man in a Fire Department Chief's uniform.
"No, I wasn't." Brackett's deep voice reverberated down the hall, clearly audible even fifty feet away. "Fortunately I came to my senses and backed the bill. With the paramedic program in place, there are hundreds, probably thousands of people walking around who wouldn't otherwise be here. Without a highly-trained, competent paramedic able to administer IV fluids in the field, it's doubtful that Captain Stanley would have…"
Roy coughed, loudly, and then cleared his throat. It drew Chief Houts' attention immediately and Brackett's head swiveled, gaze focusing on Roy and then shifting to Karen. Roy glanced that way himself, not surprised to see that her face had gone chalk white and she'd stopped walking.
"Roy DeSoto here is one of the men who helped change my mind," Brackett said. "Frankly, without his efforts on behalf of the paramedic program, I don't think it would ever have come to fruition, much less had the success that we see today."
It was a skillful redirect of the conversation and a subtle way of 'introducing' an out-of-uniform Roy to Houts. They'd met before, of course, but Roy sincerely doubted that Houts remembered him out of all the firefighters he'd met over the years. He nodded in reply to the Chief's deeper nod of acknowledgement, surprised and unnerved that Houts was here. The Chief Engineer didn't show up for most line of duty injuries, usually just the really bad ones, the fatalities.
Roy stepped aside as Brackett and Houts walked down the hall, as Brackett introduced Houts to Karen, as they exchanged the appropriate words of reassurance and support. He liked Houts, or at least what he knew of Houts, and the Chief seemed sincere and truly attentive as he both spoke and listened to Karen. And he did so without an entourage or a single staff person.
The doors from the ICU opened again and Chief Miller emerged, looking closer to seventy years old than his actual fifty-two years.
Roy stepped away from Brackett, Houts, Karen and her brother and met Miller midway in the hall, attempting a surreptitious appraisal of his Battalion Chief.
"Stop looking me over, DeSoto, I'm fine," Miller said. "Or as fine as I can be under the circumstances with six of my men hospitalized and another ten treated and released."
Roy would have to agree, based on as much of an assessment as he could perform without actually taking the man's pulse or blood pressure. Miller's color and respirations seemed in the normal ranges, he just looked exhausted and drained. At a guess, Miller was going on thirty hours without any sleep.
"Sir, with all due respect…"
"Four men in Intensive Care, DeSoto," Miller said. The lines in his face were deep crevices, far more pronounced than usual, and his eyes were bleary and red-rimmed. "Two from 51s, two from 22s. I'll be better when I know they're going to be all right."
"Chief," he said, and then hesitated, unsure of a lot of things but not his familiarity with their injuries. "Trust me when I say that I know how you feel, but you should probably get some sleep. It's going to take some time."
The waiting room was overflowing with people who looked up when he entered, hoping for doctors with good news or at least answers. More than one facial expression sagged when they recognized a fellow seeker.
He rubbed his eyes, feeling the lack of sleep. A four-hour nap earlier that day was nowhere near restorative, not for this type of bone deep and heartsick exhaustion.
The Lopez family occupied the far left corner, gathered around Marco's mother. Marco's father was on an ill-timed trip to Arizona to visit his hospitalized sister and was, at last contact, frantically trying to get a flight back home. Chet's mother was sitting next to Marco's mother, holding and gently rubbing her right hand. A priest was on Mrs. Lopez's left, leaning forward and speaking to both mothers in a voice quiet enough that it didn't carry.
Matt Kelleher's wife, or estranged wife, or soon-to-be ex-wife – Roy couldn't really keep track of the latest developments in that tempestuous marriage – was sitting in the far right corner of the room with an older couple, probably Matt's parents, and with Steve Ferrara who'd raised his head when Roy had entered and then slumped back in his seat when Roy gave an almost imperceptible head shake: no news. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, both with Matt's red hair and angled features moved restlessly in their seats next to their mother, leaning into each other to whisper.
In the middle of the room, Alva Miller, the Chief's wife, had one arm wrapped loosely around Kathy Wozniak's shoulders, neither saying a word, just grim faced and waiting.
He saw a motion from the left side of the room, Joanne rising from the collection of Lopez family members, and he turned in that direction, taking a seat beside her.
He wrapped his arms around his wife and let her draw him against her, found comfort in the familiar smell of the body lotion she smoothed on her skin, the smell of their shampoo in her hair and the quiet nonsense words that she was repeating in his ear as she rubbed his back. Even the plastic arm of the waiting room chair pressed into his side could be ignored in favor of the momentary peace he found.
"What happened?" Joanne whispered into his hair.
He just shook his head and pushed his face into her neck, resting his head briefly on her shoulder.
"Houts is here," he said, knowing she wouldn't understand.
Chapter 13: Disruptions, Part 1
A week of shifts - every third day in that particular weeklong stretch translated to Friday, Monday, Thursday - and each felt as if he was working overtime.
It was his station, his Engine, but each shift required adjusting to a different Captain with his own way of doing things. Every shift meant adjusting to linemen who didn't speak in the same shorthand references that Kelly and Lopez did. Firemen were supposed to be interchangeable; they moved from station to station over their careers, they swapped shifts and worked overtime away from their home stations all the time, but for all of that, there were routines he'd grown used to, grown to expect.
Before the start of every shift, after he'd made a drinkable pot of coffee and assuming the previous shift wasn't out on a run, he liked to check his Engine bumper to bumper, first the officer side and then the driver's side. Each time as he finished, as he reached the front bumper, Captain Stanley would emerge from his office with a raised eyebrow, silently inquiring about the status of the apparatus his crew depended upon. And after an equally silent reassurance, they would have a cup of the coffee that had just finished brewing.
Joe Pantone didn't know that routine on Friday. Neither did Barry Shepherd on Monday or, of all people, Dick Hammer on Thursday. Mike checked his Engine alone and he drank his coffee alone afterwards in awkward silence.
There were no Phantom pranks, no non-stop barrage of Kelly & Gage volleying words between them. Roll call varied, shift-to-shift, formal, informal, unpredictable. Pantone inspected uniforms like Hookrader inspected equipment. Shepherd was too busy playing catch-up on the area that they covered. And instead of feeling familiar, having Dick Hammer back just felt awkward, like running into an old girlfriend and remembering why you'd broken up years earlier.
Even the food was different; none of the replacements cooked with half the verve or blast of flavor that Marco brought to a simple egg dish.
He'd noticed that Gage and DeSoto seemed a lot less bothered by it all. More than half the time, the Squad went out on runs that never involved the Engine and their routine, their rhythm seemed unchanged, even if Gage skulked around the station missing his verbal sparring partner more than he'd admit.
Mike just couldn't seem to find his feet; the tasks he'd done automatically for five years now required conscious thought, a deliberate decision to connect this hose, pull this lever, charge this line for the interchangeable linemen who hauled them at each incident.
The next Captain's List wasn't due out for another ten weeks so there were no freshly promoted Captains who could take a long term albeit temporary assignment at Stations 51 or 22, or at Station 116, whose A-shift Captain had suffered an off-duty heart attack. The Department was struggling to fill the sudden and unexpected absences of three A-shift Captains; they had no one to spare to provide a consistent routine and with brushfire season in full swing, even 51's B & C shift Captains were allocated elsewhere when pulling overtime shifts.
He was checking the equipment on the Engine, one compartment at a time, frowning at the state of the nozzles when the Squad backed in after their fifth run of the day. It was quiet in the bay that afternoon. The rest of the Engine crew on today's shift was hanging hose in the back and Captain Hammer was in his office, where he spent most of his time.
"And then, man you are not going to believe what she said next," Gage was saying as the Squad came to a halt beside the Engine.
DeSoto twisted the key and the Squad's engine cut out. Stoker could hear the audible sigh and then, "I get the feeling that it's not going to matter whether I believe it or not."
Stoker smiled into the Engine's open equipment compartment, out of Gage's direct view.
"Roy, it's like sometimes you don't even hear me when I talk," Gage said, and then swung open the passenger door and pulled himself through it. Rubbing his eyes, and then shoving his fingers through his already disheveled hair, he pulled the door closed with a vehemence that he tempered at the last second, fingers clutching the door handle and closing it with a soft click. He gave a guilty glance around, as if Charlie might have installed cameras in the apparatus bay, and then meandered his way to the kitchen, still scowling.
"Trust me, I hear you," DeSoto said from inside the Squad. "I haven't figured out a way to not hear you and when I do, I'll be sure not to tell you."
He exited the Squad and nodded a greeting over its roof at Stoker.
"This the plan girl still?" Stoker said.
Roy nodded. "Yep, it's the plan girl alright." And despite his professed indifference, he followed his partner into the kitchen area.
It was like rubbernecking at an MVA, something that he'd always found inexplicable. He'd never quite realized what an irresistible compulsion it might be. Stoker closed the compartment on the acceptably but not perfectly cleaned nozzles and ambled in after them.
"….equated my relationships with women to our runs!" Gage waved his right arm in the air while his left hand clutched an opened quart of milk.
"Johnny," Roy said, holding up his steaming coffee cup with a meaningful glance at the milk container. "You think…"
"An encounter with a total stranger, which by its very nature is both transitory and extremely intense, lending it a perception of intimacy," Gage said, wild-eyed and waving the milk carton. "And then she said, just like on our runs, I never see or even think of them again afterwards. Can you believe that? A perception of intimacy!"
Roy visibly started and blinked. "Is that a direct quote?"
"Roooooy," Gage said, leaning toward him. "Does that really sound like something I'd say?"
Roy licked his lips and considered it for a moment. "If I say 'no,' can I have the milk?"
Gage thumped the carton onto the counter next to his partner and a splash of milk erupted out of the spout. Roy frowned down at the puddle on the counter and then turned his head and sent his partner a narrowed eyed glare. He poured milk into his coffee and walked away, taking a seat at the kitchen table.
It was times like this when Stoker kept waiting to hear the perfect Chet Kelly quip, or even a half-hearted Chet Kelly quip, the purpose of which could only be to twist Gage into a frenzy that would produce increasing levels of entertainment for everyone but Gage. Nine days after the Pac Tel fire and he was still expecting to hear Chet drop a perfectly timed verbal bomb in the dayroom.
"My dating life is not a MVA," Gage said. "Or a heart attack or a drug overdose or difficulty breathing or …" He trailed off, sputtering.
"How about an unknown type rescue?" Stoker whispered as he slipped into a chair at the table across from Roy.
DeSoto turned away but his pretense at coughing didn't fool anyone.
"Heh, heh, heh," Gage said, eyes narrowed and face contorted into a scowl. "You're a real riot, Stoker.
"How about a panic attack at a dentist's office?" Roy said, fighting a smile.
Gage shook his head. "I don't even know why I bother."
"Panic attack at a dentist's office?"
"Uh-huh. You know that possible heart attack call we just went on?"
"Teeth cleaning," Roy said. "Nervous patient." He grinned. "Doesn't like dentists."
"Roy," Gage interrupted. "Will you be serious for a moment?"
Stoker looked at Roy and they both started snickering.
"Wouldja look at that," said a voice from the doorway. "Hey Woody, did you know Stoker even knew how to laugh?"
"Oh, shut up, Wilson," Gage said in disgust and stalked out of the kitchen. He switched on the television with a jerk of its switch and then blinked at the screen, frozen in place by the unexpected sight of bodies entwined in satin sheets, a woman in full makeup saying something in a low, throaty voice to her lover.
"Soap operas," Roy said with a sigh. "You have any idea how hard it'll be to pull him away when the tones sound?"
"For your information," Gage said irritably, "I was looking for the latest news on the Pac Tel thing."
With eerie complicity, the phone rang and five pairs of eyes turned to look at the wall phone. None of them moved to answer it and after the second ring, it stopped. Stoker could hear the low murmur of Captain Hammer's voice from the office but not his words.
"You think we'd be used to that by now," Fred Wilson said, pulling out a chair on Stoker's far right with a harsh scrape against the floor that one of them was going to end up buffing out later. "Phone's been back on since Friday."
"It is here," Bert Woodhull answered, lifting the pot of coffee with an inquiring looks at his fellow lineman. "Phone Company got emergency services - us, police, Sheriff's Department and hospitals - up and running by the weekend. Everyone else is screwed for who knows how many months, but I'm not complaining. It's going to save me a bundle since my wife can't call her mother in Florida and talk for two hours every Wednesday and Sunday."
The soap opera bedroom scene had ended and Gage was now flipping channels on the television looking for a news report.
Stoker leaned across the table so he could speak to Roy quietly.
"You guys hit Rampart this afternoon?"
Roy nodded. "No time for visits though. We brought the patients in, worked with the doctors and by the time we handed over all the paperwork and resupplied, Dispatch was asking if we were available again." He took a sip of coffee. "Chet had that appointment with the sports medicine guy today, didn't he? The one who takes care of the Rams players when they get injured."
"Yeah, and Marco's got that follow-up with the pulmonologist."
Roy nodded and glanced at the phone.
It was tempting. Ten days ago they'd have picked it up and called Rampart to check in on their guys without a second thought but with Disaster Protocols still in effect, it was supposed to be used only for official Fire Department business and emergencies. Pacific Telephone had set up banks of phones in multiple locations in Carson City, West Carson, Gardena, Torrance and Lomita, which could be used for personal or business calls at no charge by anyone whose phone service was out, as long as you were willing to wait in line for at least an hour, usually longer, and keep your call less than ten minutes.
Roy sighed and shrugged. "Maybe we'll get a run where we have a few extra minutes at Rampart, otherwise I guess we'll just see them tomorrow, see how everyone's doing."
Footsteps echoed in the apparatus bay, the solid, heavy tread of Dick Hammer out of his office, signaling undone chores or a surprise drill. Gage switched the television off and chair legs scraped against the floor as everyone rose. They were all standing in the kitchen looking at the doorway when he came in and Stoker's heart stuttered in his chest at Hammer's expression.
Hammer gave a heavy sigh, and then jerked his chin towards the table for them to sit. He pulled out the chair nearest the door and sat heavily.
"Come on, sit down. I don't want to do this standing up."
Stoker glanced around the room, gaze lingering on DeSoto and Gage, pretty sure their blank expressions and increased respirations mirrored his own body language as they all took a seat.
"There's no good way to say this so I just will," Hammer said with a grimace. "Kelleher's family made the decision." He hesitated and then plunged ahead. "They're removing all life support sometime today, not sure when."
Gage and DeSoto were probably the most affected, the ones who'd known him best from Paramedic training and Advisory councils, but there was such utter silence in the room that Stoker could hear the ticking of the wall clock above the blackboard, across the room. Knowing that this was probably going to happen, knowing that there was a definitive diagnosis of severe cerebral hypoxia brought on by carbon monoxide poisoning, that there was no measurable brain activity, didn't make the finality of it easier to accept.
"Yeah," Hammer said, as if concluding the conversation, but instead of getting up and going back to work, he slumped further into his chair
Stoker tried to think through the sudden waves of grief buffeting him. He knew, at some logical, dispassionate level of his mind that the news would be immeasurably worse if it was Marco or Chet or Cap. That would be life changing, a disintegration of his personal universe, but his mind could not comprehend how he could possibly feel more devastated than he did right now.
Chapter 14: Disruptions, Part 2
There were multiple voices behind the door, real voices, not the voices he expected and not the filtered, professionally smooth voices one heard from a television set but the rough-edged murmur of men like those with whom he worked. It sounded much like the station did when he came in before the start of a shift, muted voices filtering from the bay or dayroom as he changed into his uniform.
He pushed open the hospital door. Two men were sprawled in armchairs that looked as if they'd been pilfered from an office or conference room. Or maybe the charge nurse on the third floor was a soft touch for firemen. Both looked familiar, their names elusive. He bet he'd know them in a helmet and turnout coat.
"It doesn't make a damn bit of difference, Hank," the one with a full head of gray hair was insisting. "If you'd done a top-down search and started on five, it would've taken you just as long to get to the fourth floor, and it wouldn't have made any sense to start on five when their last reported position was three."
He walked fully into the room and was hit with that all too familiar hospital room smell: a mixture of disinfectant-mopped floors, Betadine-soaked bandaging, unshowered patients sweating out medications and sagging floral arrangements. And like most times when there were visiting firefighters in the hospital room, there was a top note of smoke. In this case, it was the faint smell of burning wood, plaster and paint, hard to banish completely even after showering or changing to civilian attire.
Three men's heads rotated towards the door and the two that weren't Hank Stanley smiled a little sheepishly.
"Force of habit," said the man in the chair closer to the door, the one whose brown hair was only streaked with gray and whose squint lines weren't quite as prominent as the other man's. Worry lines, Captain Stanley usually called them, something that he swore he never had until he pinned the bugles on.
"Come on in, Mike," Stanley said with an easy, welcoming grin. "You know George Higgins and Marty Cunningham, don't you?"
And with names to go with faces, Stoker nodded. Higgins was 95's A-shift Captain, Cunningham was 28s; he and his crew had fought the fire with them. They stood and he shook hands with both men.
"Pull up a chair and join us," said Higgins, the most senior of the three Captains in the room.
There was a visitor's chair on the other side of the two-patient room, on the far side of Marco's bed, which was empty, sheets and blankets folded over midway on the bed. He carried the chair towards the gathering of off-duty Fire Department Captains and joined them.
"More X-rays and tests," Stanley said, answering the question Stoker had been about to ask. "He left about fifteen minutes ago, and then he has that follow-up with the Pulmonologist. Not sure exactly when he'll be back, Mike."
He placed his chair near Cunningham and Higgins so that Cap didn't have to shift position in the hospital bed to see all of them. Propped up by the inclined back of his hospital bed, Stanley looked better than he had two days ago, which was substantially better than he had a week ago, which still looked nowhere close to normal. At some point in the last few days, he'd traded the white hospital gown for a pair of dark green pajamas and Stoker wondered how someone had managed to get the pajama shirt on over the cast without destabilizing the shoulder.
"And yeah, okay, Truck 86 was an option, but I still don't think it was good one," Cunningham said, picking up a thread of the conversation that Stoker had interrupted. "That would've been a hell of a long way for you and your guys to climb down and based on how things turned out, you would have been on it when the fuel tank blew." He shrugged; words were not necessary to convey that probable outcome. "The Snorkel was the best available means of egress and waiting for it was the right choice."
Stanley frowned and Stoker wasn't sure if his Captain was even open to being convinced that he'd done everything possible to get everyone out safely.
"Look." Higgins heaved a sigh. "You know and I know…" He paused. "Stoker, this doesn't leave the room…" He turned a fierce gaze on Stoker who nodded, realizing that he'd been included in something that wasn't just a social visit. "We all know that if 22s had updated the IC when they moved to the fourth floor…"
"HT trouble," Stanley interrupted. "When we found them, Dan said he'd tried checking in a couple of times on four and got an earful of static every time."
Higgins shook his head. "You went up the same staircase and made contact on the fourth floor without any problem."
Stanley's shrug was an automatic response and he immediately grimaced, his right hand crossing his body to grip his immobilized left arm. "On different equipment. His might have had a low charge. Maybe the antenna connection came loose. Who knows? It happens."
"Hank's right," Cunningham said with a glance at Higgins. "Dan checked in more than once from the third floor. There's no reason he'd stop when they went up to four unless it was something outside his control."
Higgins leaned forward and rubbed both hands over his face and Stoker wondered how long they'd been at it, this unofficial postmortem. Cap usually led them through something like this at the station after a bad call to reinforce what worked well, pick apart what could have been done differently, how they could have achieved the same results with fewer risks, make sure they worked an incident both safely and effectively so that no matter what, everyone went home to his family at the end of a shift. No one ever wanted to have to carry their own guys out of a building.
"Okay, you're right, the both of you," Higgins conceded reluctantly. "Let me ask you something. When you took your men inside, Hank, how many HTs did you carry?"
"You already know what I'm going to say," Stanley said. "I had the only HT."
Cunningham groaned and slid down in his chair. "You really think the Department is going to spend the money to equip every man with an HT?"
"I think it should be raised during the inquiry. It's a hell of a hard way to make a point, but maybe this will be what it takes to get the Department to consider doing just that. If even one of the other guys from 22s had been carrying an HT, 51s would've gone straight to the fourth floor and we wouldn't be sitting in Hank's hospital room right now."
It occurred to Stoker that he might be the only one in the room that knew Kelleher had carried an HT. He opened his mouth and then hesitated, trying to remember who'd told him Kelleher had carried an HT. Ferrara? Wozniak?
"Too bad HQ will be interviewing Hank, not you, George."
"You're damn right it is. Hank, you're going to have to make that point for all of us when they come to get your statement for the inquiry."
Stoker recognized that particular shift of expression on his Captain's face but wasn't sure if the other two men would as well.
"Oh, hell," Higgins said. "I hope you stuck to the facts and didn't spend the whole time trying to figure out how you could have pulled off some goddamn miraculous rescue. Those guys'll come up with enough what-ifs on their own without any help from the guys who actually have to do the job. There's not a decision you made where I wouldn't have done the same damn thing myself, which is exactly what I'm going to say when we do the training committee review."
Stanley shifted on the bed and Stoker ran a quick assessment: the lines around Stanley's eyes were more pronounced and he was clenching his jaw as he moved, as if trying and failing to find a comfortable position. Mike glanced at his watch.
"It wasn't just staff guys," Stanley said. "Chief Conrad sat in on it and kept things focused on the facts of the scene, what information I had going in, my familiarity with the pre-plan…"
"That's 36's area," Higgins said. "Not 51's."
"…tools, safety equipment, manpower..."
"I know for a fact that wasn't entirely your call," Cunningham said.
"…location and extent of fire, layout of the third and fourth floors, special hazards, how the interior wall had come down, how we cleared it and packaged the guys from 22's." He shrugged again, this time using only his right shoulder. "Normal stuff."
It was the exactly the type of thing they'd review at the station after the more challenging calls, only this time someone had died, one of their own, and the expressions of every man in the room reflected that immutable fact.
"Chief Miller didn't sit in?"
Stanley shook his head and there was a long moment of silence as eyes flickered and the three Captains exchanged glances. Stoker leaned back in his chair, assuming that they were deciding whether to pursue that particular point with him in the room.
"They talk to Dan?"
Stanley's jaw shifted. "No idea. I tried to see him yesterday but the nurse said he wasn't up for visitors."
"Still?" Cunningham's voice conveyed the puzzled alarm that Stoker saw on Higgins's face as well. "Has anyone seen him? Besides his family, I mean?"
"The doctors won't tell me anything," Stanley said. "I did hear that the swelling's down and the cord is intact. He'll walk again, eventually, but that the fractured vertebra is hellishly painful, even with the brace." His expression twisted and sagged. "But with the news about Kelleher…"
Heads dipped and nodded.
"Still," Cunningham said, "you'd think if he'd see anyone…" He trailed off and sent a glance at Higgins, as if looking for support, but Higgins was looking at the floor, jaw tight, massaging his right temple.
Stanley sighed. After a few moments of staring in the direction of the empty corner of the room, to his left, he finally said, "Any word on the funeral?"
Higgins cleared his throat but he sounded hoarse when he answered. "Tuesday. "
Stanley chewed at his lip, gaze still distant, and Higgins and Cunningham exchanged a look.
Higgins cleared his throat again. "So, the doctors give you any idea of when you're going to get out of here?"
Stanley blinked as if thinking about the question, and then turned his head back to his visitors. "Monday at the latest. Possibly as early as tomorrow, depending on today's test results," he said almost absently.
Higgins raised an eyebrow and looked at Cunningham.
"Tell me you're not sitting there thinking about attending the funeral," Higgins said, in that firm but compassionate tone that Stoker assumed the Department taught in some kind of Captain's training class. "The Department's not going to want you riding the Engine, not on sick leave, and you're in no shape for all the standing that's involved in the procession or the service."
Stoker agreed wholeheartedly but unhappily recognized a familiar rigid set to his Captain's jaw, as if the decision had already been made. And while Stanley was no longer tethered to an IV and the nurses had him up and walking the hallway, a Department funeral was another thing entirely. Mike kept his silence, but he didn't like it.
"Dan's not going to be able to be there," Stanley said, as if that explained everything.
"But Harrison, Ferrara, Ostrander and van der Heijden will be," Cunningham said. "Along with half the department, representatives from every county in the state and a fair amount from surrounding states."
Stanley looked directly at Stoker, and Mike nodded.
"Yeah, Cap. Johnny, Roy and I'll be there, along with the guys from B shift."
He hoped that was sufficient representation from 51s. Everyone would understand if the three members of the crew who'd done their best to save Kelleher's life were not in attendance. He really didn't want to have to take this to a higher authority to convince Cap to sit this one out and for all he knew Karen might feel the same sense of obligation to be there that Cap clearly did.
The room door swung open and the pretty dark-eyed nurse who entered scanned the room and sighed.
"Three's too many," she said, but her tone was more amused than scolding. She unwrapped the stethoscope from around her neck and Stoker was relieved to see a small cup of what he hoped were Cap's pain meds in her other hand. "How about you gentlemen clear the room while I check on my patient and then two of you can come back and visit?"
Her voice lilted as if it was a question but her expression said that there was only one right answer.
Higgins and Cunningham immediately pushed to their feet.
"I need to get going anyway…" Cunningham said.
"Think about what I said," Higgins insisted.
Stoker followed them out to the hallway, surprised when they lingered: Cunningham unsure, hesitating, and Higgins sizing him up.
"Talk him out of it, Stoker," Higgins finally said in a tone of voice that left no doubt it was a command.
"Jesus, Mike, you were at the scene," Cunningham said. "When that fuel tank blew, I honest-to-God thought we'd lost Hank and the rest of your crew."
Stoker swallowed and couldn't find the right words so he simply nodded and let Cunningham read it in his eyes.
"Stop being such a girl, Marty," Higgins growled. "Stoker's going to think that your wife is the man in the family."
"Now, why would he think that? I made absolutely certain that she wasn't related to you before I married her."
He leaned against the hallway wall and watched the two Captains walk towards the elevator in companionable silence, as if they'd used up all their words.
It was quiet in the hallway, with less traffic than he'd expected for an early Friday afternoon. Halfway down the corridor, he could see one or two nurses coming and going from the nursing station like worker bees from a hive, but there was little other activity.
He'd expected more activity, more visitors. Every other time he'd stopped by, the room seemed to overflow with members of the Lopez and Stanley families, both immediate and extended, particularly but not exclusively in Marco's case. Cap's wife had been a fixture, a book or magazine in one hand and her husband's right hand in the other, as if anchoring him in place. Cap's parents and in-laws had been in and out of the room, along with his kids. But not today.
He spent an unknown number of minutes staring blankly at the neutral tone of the wall on the other side of the corridor, not thinking about anything specifically, just turning off his thoughts and letting his mind drift.
The door swished open again and the dark-eyed nurse smiled up at him, a real smile, not a strictly professional one.
"He should be a lot more comfortable once those meds kick in," she said.
Stoker blinked, coming back to awareness sluggishly and then he nodded, aware that she was expecting some kind of response but unsure what was appropriate. "Thank you," he said finally. "I bet that shoulder hurts pretty badly."
It was definitely not Gage-level repartee with a pretty nurse so he wasn't all that surprised when she just gave him a closed mouth smile and a nod and went on her way. Sighing, he pushed back into the hospital room.
The nurse had adjusted the back of the hospital bed to something less than a forty-five degree angle, which he took as a subtle hint that Cap was supposed to be resting, not entertaining.
"You know, when I asked you to call a plumber for me," Stanley said, "it was because I knew that bathroom sink was driving Karen crazy and my brother-in-law's a great guy, but a menace to indoor plumbing. It was not a request for you to fix it yourself."
Stoker noticed that the visitor chair he'd carried over had been returned to Marco's bedside and one of the armchairs had been tucked in the far left corner. Busy little nurse. He repositioned the remaining armchair to his own satisfaction and sat.
He shrugged. "You would have done the exact same thing I did if it was one of us who got hurt. Besides, Johnny helped too."
"Well, thank you for taking care of it. She'd been after me to fix that for a week and then…" He breathed in and out and settled back against the bed. "Hair?"
"Oh yeah," Stoker agreed, grimacing at the memory.
Stanley sighed. "Long haired females are a hazard to sink traps. Remember that when you eventually settle down and do the family thing."
Stoker nodded and then said, "You're never going to get your dress uniform jacket sleeve over that arm, you know."
Stanley glanced at his left arm, still immobilized against his chest, the cast on his forearm and the splinted fingers, and frowned.
"So we're back to that," he mused. "You're probably right, but Karen's got a seam ripper. I bet she could use that and then baste the sleeve to fit over the cast."
Or maybe you should just stay home and let your body heal so you can come back to 51s sooner rather than later, Mike thought.
"What did the doctors say?"
"Everything's healing fine, right on schedule. A couple of weeks at home and then I'm on light duty until this," he twisted his head towards his left arm, "completely heals."
He'd completely sidestepped the real question of course.
"When do you start PT?"
"Depends on the shoulder. I have an appointment next week and we'll see how that goes."
It was all stuff he wanted to know but it was also filler, chitchat.
"How's Marco doing? Everything okay?"
That was the right question to ask; Cap visibly brightened.
"Yeah, he's doing great. He sounds like hell, like he ate the smoke yesterday instead of last week, but from what he told me, the docs say his throat and lungs will be fine. He'll probably be back before I am."
Stoker let out a relieved exhale.
"And before you ask, he's planning on being there Tuesday too. He said he's going, AMA if need be, but his throat and his breathing are good and if his visit with the Pulmonologist today goes well, he might go home tomorrow too." Stanley paused and then said, "We'll all be there."
He hadn't planned on blurting it out; it was pure reaction. He'd already known that Chet was planning to attend the funeral; he wouldn't march of course, not on crutches with his knee in a brace. He wanted to say 'don't you think you guys did enough' or 'what else are you trying to prove' but it wasn't really about that. He felt a sudden surge of pointless and irrational anger at Kelleher for splitting off from Ferrara and not telling anyone he'd gone to the fourth floor.
Stanley's expression contorted, his brow furrowed.
"What do you mean 'why?' Why are we planning to attend?" Stanley sounded incredulous and then he paused, looking at Stoker in patent disbelief. "For the same reason you are. The same reason B-shift is going and as many guys from the Department who can be there. The same reason there will be representation from the rest of the state and all of the surrounding states."
Stoker sighed and opened his mouth but Stanley, slightly flushed, kept talking, leaning forward, his voice slightly raised and edgy.
"Because Matt Kelleher was one of us. Because we go to honor his life and his sacrifice. Because we're there for his family, to show that his life had meaning and value as a Firefighter and as a man and we won't forget that or him. Because it could have just as easily been any one of us and we're there to acknowledge that too."
Stoker waited until his Captain stopped to draw breath.
"Cap, you know you did everything possible to get Kelleher out of there, right?"
Stanley's mouth snapped shut and his eyes narrowed. In the abrupt silence, Stoker was uncomfortably aware of his own chest rising and falling more rapidly than usual.
"Jesus, is that what this is all about?" Stanley's voice was still incredulous but now his expression was stunned. "You think…" he stopped and stared at Stoker. "I went over that search and rescue from every possible option, rehashed every decision, and I made my peace with it last week. We located 22's guys as quickly as anyone possibly could have done and we got them out of there faster than most might've and into the hands of people who could and did provide the immediate medical intervention they needed. We did our job and we did it well, especially considering the conditions that we had."
Stoker drew a deep breath, relieved and confused in equal measure.
"But the…" he gestured at the chair that the nurse had moved to the corner and then at the door. "The stuff with Higgins and with Cunningham and with trying to figure out how it could have been done faster."
Stanley sighed and sagged back in the bed, his expression softening into something rueful.
"We got the guys from 22s out quickly and safely," he said in a quiet voice. His lips tightened and his Adams apple bobbed. "It was my own guys I didn't get out fast enough."
Stoker felt himself slump mentally, fumbling for a response, a reassurance, but his mind had gone utterly silent, no words, no thoughts, just a vast emptiness. He swallowed. "Okay," he said. Higgins would be disappointed in him but that wasn't really the opinion that mattered.
Stanley leaned back against the bed. He looked tired, cheekbones in sharper relief than normal against eyes that looked bruised in the odd hospital lighting.
"You guys do the debriefing?" he asked. "The Critical Incident Stress thing?"
Stoker sighed in recollection and nodded. "Yeah. Last Thursday."
"Did it help?"
He knew what he was supposed to say and maybe it had helped and he just didn't realize it. He wasn't having nightmares or acting out, at least as far as he knew. As a matter of fact, he was sleeping fine, even getting more sleep than normal. He shrugged.
"Gage talked a lot but didn't really say anything." He inclined his head, eliciting an amused half smile and a nod of reluctant acknowledgement from his Captain. "And DeSoto didn't say all that much but he listened when everyone else talked and agreed with a lot of what was said."
Roy's expression had still looked raw and pained, as if things hurt too much to put into words. Even before Kelleher had died, Roy's eyes held the hurt close to him, as if it was a personal thing.
"They know Kelleher well?"
Stoker puzzled over the question. As far as he knew, Gage and DeSoto knew Kelleher like he knew some of the other Engineers in the county. They covered for guys who were out on vacation, occasionally attended some of the same specialized training seminars, but knew each other mostly through word of mouth and reputation. It wasn't as if they worked together. He frowned, and reconsidered. Gage and DeSoto could have worked with Kelleher on overtime for all he knew.
"They knew him, not sure how well."
Not that it mattered. It was more about the knowledge that it could have just as easily been one of them than it was about Matt Kelleher specifically. And of course for Roy, the knowledge that Kelleher had a wife and a couple of kids raised a mirror that no one really wanted to see. From the brooding expression on Cap's face, Roy wasn't the only one who'd looked in that mirror.
"Was it true that Kelleher had an HT?"
He didn't know why he'd asked that. It wasn't as if it made a difference at this point.
Stanley pursed his lips and seemed unsettled.
"I heard that he did. I didn't see one." There was a pause and from the distant look in his eyes, Stanley was mentally revisiting the Switching Control room, clearing the drywall and framing off 22s men, and searching for something he'd missed. "It was dark, there was a lot of debris. The smoke wasn't as bad as it was on three but it was bad enough. We were using our flashlights to see how badly they were hurt, figure out how to get them out…" He shrugged, again just one shoulder. "Kind of irrelevant at this point, don't you think?"
It wasn't, not at all. It was the type of thing that would definitely surface in the inquiry, even if the answer was not widely broadcast across the Department. Of course, that wasn't what Cap meant though, was it?
"Captain Higgins had a valid point," he said, stubbornly perseverant in the face of his Captain's hint to drop it. It wasn't irrelevant; not by a long shot, especially if it made the difference between his guys getting hurt or not.
"George usually does," Stanley said mildly. "I'm just not sure where you're going with this, Mike."
He wasn't all that sure where he was going either. The point he wanted to make was elusive, just a flash of a notion that vanished as soon as he tried to make it concrete, something he could explain or describe. When he previewed the words about to come out of his mouth, they seemed petty, throwing blame on the one person who'd paid the ultimate price for a mistake that might not even have been his.
"I'm not really sure either," he said in a small voice, gaze downward. "It's just that from what I can see, what I've heard, you – you, Chet and Marco – did everything right and it was the stuff that you couldn't influence… If Kelleher had an HT and used it to tell Captain Wozniak, or his partner, for Christ's sake, where he was going or if one of the other guys from 22s had an HT and used it to let the IC know they were up on four, or if we'd managed to keep that fuel tank cooler, longer..." He tried to rein in his rambling thoughts, tried to make something coherent out of them. "I don't think it's your fault that that you guys didn't get out before the fuel tank blew."
None of that came close to conveying the thoughts still flitting around inside of his brain but words weren't really his forte anyway and Cap knew it.
"It's not about fault or blame," Stanley said, slowly, as if he was still trying to figure out what Mike had been trying to say. "It's about responsibility. I am completely responsible for the safety of my crew, especially when I take them inside like I did at that fire."
A half-memory of overheard firefighter gossip, of pieces of a rumor so fragmented that it left far too much room for interpretation, surfaced in the churning sea of his thoughts.
"But you didn't make the call to take them inside after 22s," Mike said. "That was Chief Miller."
And now he remembered. It was two guys from headquarters who had been talking in the back of the room where they'd held the CISM debriefing the previous week, and a lot of what he'd heard sounded like what Gage had overheard in the men's room shortly after the fire was contained.
Stanley sighed. "Don't believe every rumor you hear. It's Hausler's job to ask those questions."
Stoker tried to maintain a poker face that he knew didn't fool Cap for a second. It was no great secret that Deputy Chief Hausler was more of a micro-managing control freak than a leader in any sense of the word. He'd earned his rank but Mike couldn't name a single firefighter who'd willingly follow Hausler into a fire.
"So Hausler's not going to hang Chief Miller out to dry?"
Stanley frowned and was silent long enough that Mike wondered if he should just change the subject.
"It's a hell of a decision to have to make," he finally said. "We size up a scene and decide on a strategy and we send men inside who are trained and equipped to handle the fire or the rescue or the chemical spill and you don't always have the time on the scene to second guess the decision or even time to worry, but the worry's there, right underneath your awareness of everything that's happening." He paused. "And for all of that, the hardest decision isn't always to send men inside. It's unspeakably harder to make the call to not send anyone inside." He licked his lips and finally turned to look at Stoker. "Especially when the decision is to not send anyone else inside."
Stoker didn't know what to say. He finally just said, "Okay."
"I can tell you that if I'd been in Chief Miller's shoes, I would have made the same decision he did. The building was essentially structurally sound, and even though the fire wasn't contained, it wasn't encroaching on our position. The fuel tank was a known risk, but 127s had water on it. I would've made the same call the Chief made. I would have sent us inside."
There was silence again, the unspoken hanging heavily in the air between them, and Stoker remembered more of the overheard conversation from the CISM debriefing, remembered one of the HQ Captains bemoaning that he'd missed out on a "once in a lifetime fire."
"So we went in, we all went in. Ferrara and Kelleher after the missing employee, and then Dan and his crew after Kelleher, and then 51s after 22s, and in the end, it didn't make a damn bit of difference." Stanley sighed heavily. "What a fucking waste."
And Stoker didn't know if he'd meant the man that Ferrara and Kelleher had gone in after, or Kelleher himself. Could be either. Probably both.
"So, would you have done anything differently?"
Stanley smiled, a grim little twist of the mouth and shook his head. "Not a thing, Mike. Not a goddamned thing."
Chapter 15: Author's Note
This story was partially inspired by historical events, magnified and dramatized for the world of Emergency! Fanfiction.
"In 1975, a fire of unknown origin swept through a switching center at Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street in lower Manhattan on February 27, 1975, causing the worst single service disaster ever suffered by any single Bell operating company. Starting around midnight in the cable vault under the eleven-story building's basement, the fire spread rapidly upward. Alert work by New York City firemen confined it to the lower floors and saved the building itself from destruction, but dense smoke from burning cable insulation suffused the unburdened parts of the building and virtually all the equipment in it was put out of service. By afternoon, when the fire was finally declared under control - with no loss of life to either firemen or telephone people- twelve Manhattan telephone exchanges, embracing three hundred city blocks and 104,00 subscriber lines serving 170,000 telephones, were out of service, and among the institutions bereft of working telephones were six hospitals and medical centers, eleven firehouses, three post offices, one police precinct, nine public schools, and three higher education institutions, including New York University." (See privatelineDOTcom/issues/p.)
New York Telephone mounted a massive effort, 4,000 employees working 12-hour shifts around the clock to restore the 170,000 phone lines knocked out of service. Work that would have normally taken a year or more to accomplish was completed in twenty-two days, at a cost of approximately ninety million dollars (in 1975 dollars) helped by the fact that the entire building had not been destroyed and that there was spare switching capacity in nearby central offices.
While it was originally reported that there was no loss to life for firemen or NY Telephone company employees, sadly subsequent reports are that a dozen or so fire fighters eventually died from this incident, after the fact, as a result of inhaling massive amounts of toxic fumes which led to varying types of respiratory ailments and cancers.