By Mark Hannon
Bobby Fitzpatrick cranked up the heat in his Jeep Wrangler on a wind whipped January afternoon as he headed into work. He geared down to avoid sliding on the snow packed streets that ran past cookie cutter houses giving way to vast empty railroad yards on his right and pizza parlors and saloons on his left. He was fascinated by this part of the city where he worked, a place he had seldom seen before being hired by the Fire Department. He remembered once coming down here as a teenager, his father nervously driving down to a knitting mill outlet to get his letter sweater. A bright red pumper had zoomed past them, sirens wailing, and halted by a wooden house belching grayish brown smoke. The black coated firemen jumped off and stretched a hoseline up the steps and disappeared into the smoke. In what seemed like seconds later, the smoke turned to steam, then the men came back out coughing, their faces covered in soot and snot.
As he went further down Broadway clapboard houses appeared with warped wood and peeling paint, houses that burned fast and hot, where his instructors had told him the fire could get behind you in the walls before you knew it. His hands tightened on the steering wheel. Don't let me screw up, he thought, as he continued into an old commercial district consisting of many large brick warehouses, most boarded up, some businesses clinging to life on the first floor secured behind metal roll up doors. On some blocks nature was reclaiming the land, with weeds growing where the buildings had collapsed or been bulldozed. Here, the young man observed the few people gathering by two places, one a concrete blockhouse with a sign reading “Choice Liquors” and the other a few blocks on, a gigantic church and school complex rising out of the plain. The church was open, but the school’s masonry front piece reading “Lyceum” was underscored by a plywood sheet that read “Shelter,” and what had been the convent had a small line of clients for the soup kitchen inside. As he turned onto a side street the last light of the day was disappearing between the high-rises downtown at the end of Broadway.
He parked in the empty lot next to the firehouse, where his Lieutenant was getting out of a battered pick up. “Hello, Rookie!” the Lieutenant greeted him. “Ready to break in that new gear of yours?” “Ready to catch some fire, Lieutenant,” he responded, embarrassed by his stiff new gear and unblemished helmet as he dragged it out of the Jeep's backseat.
“Attaboy, Bobby,” the older man added, punching in the combination on the firehouse door and holding it open.
They were met in the firehouse kitchen by the smell of onions and ketchup and a heavyset, balding man who grinned at them as he wiped his glasses on the tail of his uniform shirt.
“Hey Lieutenant,” the fat man opened, “taking in stray puppies now?” nodding at Fitzpatrick, who grinned.
“Recently weaned, Carl,” the Lieutenant said, "but time for him to take the nozzle tonight," causing Bobby's neck to tense at the thought of leading the way with the hoseline. Then sniffing the air, the man in charge added, “Meatloaf tonight?”
“Gotta be meatloaf,” a wire thin man said as he banged through the swinging doors from the engine bay, buttoning his uniform over a grease smeared t-shirt. “IGA’s got ultra ground suet on sale this week. Lieutenant, the pump packing is fixed, and I could’ve taught this load of a rookie how to do it,” jutting his chin at Fitzpatrick, who stepped away from the counter he’d been leaning on, “if he’d get here earlier and not hide in the kitchen. Shit, Probie,” the pumper driver added, “the least you could do is peel a few potatoes so we can eat before midnight,” at which the newest man hurried over to the sink where Carl pitched him a bag of potatoes.
When the meal was served, the three veterans took turns firing questions at the new man.
“Bobby, tell me how to get to the 800 block of Kent Street.”
“800 block of Kent Street…OK, uh, take a right out of the firehouse, a right on Broadway, another right on Fillmore and a…left on Kent.
“Annnnnn,” buzzed Carl. “You missed. Split hundred block. Go in Sweet Avenue off Broadway and bang the left on Kent, right, Tom?”
“Right. What’s the biggest structure in our first due, probie?” intoned the driver.
“The big church over on Broadway?”
“Yeah, and it’s called St. Mary’s. My grandparents put nickels and dimes together so my Ma could go to the school there. Now they’re all gone to the suburbs like you, rookie. Nobody left but the drunks, the junkies, Davis at the liquor store and us.”
As he finished, the bells from the ancient telegraph system began to toll. Bing, bing…bing…bing, bing, bing.
“213,” Tom spouted, “corner of Hertel and Main,” which was confirmed by the dispatcher over the loudspeaker moments later.
“We run it on the fourth alarm,” Carl told the newbie.
After the dinner inquisition was over, Fitzpatrick went up the stairs to the bunkroom to make his bunk, and as he tightened the last hospital corner, the bells began their labored trilling once more. As the ninth ping struck, he heard the Lieutenant swooping down the pole in the next room. He quickly followed and by the time he hit the floor, he heard the driver’s door slam shut. As the second sequence of bells reached four, the pumper’s engine rumbled to life. When the final series of bells tolled only once, the four members of the crew were onboard and Fitzpatrick’s fingers were struggling to buckle his coat.
The engine turned sharply out of the firehouse, throwing Fitzpatrick against the cab wall. All of them strained to hear the radio over the noise of the diesel and the sirens. “Sounding Box 9-4-1, corner of Broadway and Pine. Engines 3, 1 and 13, Ladder Companies 2 and 1, Battalion Chief 1 respond, eighteen fifty-six hours.” Carl looked over at the youth, telling him, “Get your airpack on kid, you can never tell what it will be down there.” While Fitzpatrick tightened down the shoulder straps to his breathing apparatus, the pumper turned left onto Broadway. Looking down the street, the Lieutenant pounded on the glass separating the front and the back of the cab. Fitzpatrick and Carl turned to see the Lieutenant giving them the thumbs up sign and he spotted the smoke banking down ahead. As they approached the scene, the Lieutenant spoke into his microphone, passing the word to the incoming units. When they arrived at the pull box, bearded men, bottles in hand, pointed nonchalantly at the church.
Fitzpatrick tried to take it all in and discovered his heart was racing. The church was big and very old, eerie with its dark wood and stone and smoke seeping out of it. It had two small steeples at the front corners and a huge wooden steeple in the center with a clock facing the street. Heavy wooden doors gave entrance to the front of the church, and above them lights of growing intensity danced behind a large circular stained-glass window. Oh shit, Bobby thought, it’s in there waiting for me.
The Lieutenant spoke his commands in an even voice, and then dashed up the steps and into the church with a speed Fitzpatrick had never seen. The rookie grabbed the heavy brass nozzle, put several folds of the fat fabric hose on his shoulder and followed the Lieutenant up the steps. Carl fell in behind him, stretching more hose from the pumper, and Tom cleared the hose bed staring intently at the Probationer’s progress. When Fitzpatrick reached the front door he heard a cracking sound, and then the crash of breaking glass. Shards of stained glass rained down on their leather helmets and thick coats. Startled but uncut, they got through the front door where the smoke in the vestibule lolled just above their heads. As they moved forward, one of the doors to the nave opened and the Lieutenant entered the vestibule, clouds of grayish brown smoke boiling in with him. He coughed. “It’s up in the choir loft. Mask up and follow me.” The three Firefighters removed their helmets, donned the face pieces of their breathing rigs, replaced their helmets and followed the Lieutenant into the nave of the church. His hand on the rookie's shoulder, the Lieutenant led them up the stairs to the choir loft. Seeing nothing through the smoke but the steps that his free hand groped, Fitzpatrick became aware of the sounds about him: the mechanical noise as they exhaled through their face pieces, the creaking of their steps on the wooden stairs, the shattering of falling glass and the crackling of the unseen fire growing louder as they approached.
As they reached a landing on the stairs and were about to make a turn, the hoseline leapt alive with water. Fitzpatrick gripped the nozzle tightly and pulled it forward. The rookie dragged the heavy hose into the choir loft, remembering an instructor’s analogy of wrestling an alligator. Behind him he could hear Carl humping the hose up the stairs, allowing him to advance the nozzle onward.
The Lieutenant stopped suddenly, grabbed his shoulder and put his face piece inches from his own. “There it is, Bobby, just ahead. Get down low so the steam won’t get you, bleed the air out of the line, open the nozzle up and let it eat.” As he knelt heat grew on his ears and neck. The metal clips on his face piece seared like branding irons. The Lieutenant slapped his shoulder and pointed ahead at the faint red glow in the blackness that was causing all the destruction and pain. Opening the nozzle Fitzpatrick struggled against the backpressure as the water flowed at its target. He could hear it dousing the flames he could barely see and then felt tremendous heat all over as hot steam engulfed them. Again the Lieutenant put his face close to his, commanding, “Keep the line open, move up and really whack it!” Fitzpatrick pulled the line, breathing hard and fighting to control the hose. Keep going, he thought, kill the fire and then we’ll all be ok and away from this damn heat, as hot steam crept inside his coat, going down his neck and up his wrists.
Another ten seconds and the fire hissed and darkened down. The steam and heat dissipated through the loft and out where the stained-glass window had been. “Shut the line down, Bobby, let’s see what we got,” the Lieutenant said. Fitzpatrick slammed shut the nozzle shut and the hose jumped in his arms. He tried to slow his breathing. While the Lieutenant checked the area, he heard sirens from other units pulling up outside. Relief at last, he thought, his legs shaky, his arms barely able to hold the line and his heart pounding so hard it throbbed in his ears. The smoke had cleared a little and he could just make out the Lieutenant a few feet ahead, now standing up and looking towards the ceiling. Strange, he thought, the heat’s building back up and coming down on us again. Carl had moved up and stood next to his officer, pointing towards the roof. When Fitzpatrick looked up, he saw red circles growing where the lights would be. The Lieutenant moved back to where he waited and Carl slid past to his former position on the line. “The fire’s in the ceiling and the roof is coming down any second. We gotta back this line out pronto!” the Lieutenant yelled. No sooner had he finished that sentence than Fitzpatrick felt Carl pulling the line back out of the loft and down the stairs. As they dragged the line down, Bobby heard the Lieutenant say into the radio, “Keep the other units out. Repeat, keep all companies outside.”
Alone, they hauled the heavy line out of the church to see a crowd of people from the shelter staring at the fire over their heads. The flames were now roaring through the church’s roof. Firemen were wetting down the school, keeping the radiating heat and embers from igniting the old walls and roof. Aerial ladders with nozzles attached to their tips were being raised to fight the growing blaze from on high, and everywhere in the street fire hose lay like a huge plate of spilled spaghetti. When they got back to the engine and had removed their airpaks, Fitzpatrick felt his ears itch. Touching them, he felt blisters. Tom called the Lieutenant over and they examined him for other burns.
“Looks like he got some racing stripes, Loo,” Tom added, indicating a few more blisters along his face where the metal clips on the face piece had conducted the heat into his skin. “Want to go to the hospital, Bob? Get those burns checked out?” the Lieutenant asked.
“Nah,” he answered. “If they get real bad, I’ll go get them looked at. Whatta we gotta do now, El-tee?”
“Take a break, for now. We’re gonna be up all night with this one.” Tom smiled and nodded at Fitzpatrick. “Went in and got it, eh? Maybe there’s hope for him yet boss.”
The flames destroying the church’s roof ignored the heavy streams of water pouring onto the structure. With an unquenchable power, they reached up, grabbed the roof and pulled it down inside with a resounding crash that could be heard for blocks. Fitzpatrick watched with awe as St. Mary’s met her end. First, the face of the clock tumbled into the central steeple. The wood of the steeple creaked and groaned, then suddenly fell into the center of the blazing church. The corner steeples were next. They held on a while longer, arms raised up in supplication, then collapsed inward. The upper parts of the stone walls stood defiantly for some time, then weakened, buckled, and fell, the stone blocks shattering as they hit the ground.
The fire department remained on the scene through the night, ladder trucks and pumpers pulling away quietly as the ruins appeared in the daylight. The first to arrive, Fitzpatrick’s company was the last to leave. As the firefighters took up their hose, the homeless lined up at the kitchen, gazing at the steaming wreckage that the police roped off and engineers sized up for the bulldozers to make the city’s newest empty lot.
Inside the warm and dry firehouse, Bobby ignored his instructors' advice to clean his gear after a fire and hung it up reeking of smoke on the rack with the others. While washing and hanging the hose, the crew resolved to get breakfast at the end of the shift and told war stories over scrambled eggs and beer. “Good thing we got out when we did,” the Lieutenant said. “it had been cooking in the roof for a long time before we got there. When it kept banking down on us, I knew something was wrong.” Carl pulled out a tube of ointment and tossed it to Bob. "Put this on those racing stripes on your face, kid, it'll keep the burns from getting infected and won't hurt as much."
"Yeah," Tom added, "and don't shave the blistered parts either, rookie, or you'll be bleeding in your Cheerios." which got a laugh from their table and odd looks from those around them. “Nice job, kid, you handled that line like a pro,” Tom said, and they all nodded.
Out in the bar’s parking lot, the Lieutenant and Carl tried to talk Tom into helping them with a painting job, but he waved them off and said he had to check on his mother. Standing next to his jeep, Fitzpatrick felt the sting of the burns on his face and a beer buzz in his head, and knew he wouldn't get any sleep before his shift that night, waiting for what might happen.
Mark Hannon is a retired firefighter. He has previously published short fiction in Peninsula, Scribble, Adelaide and the Wayne Literary Review. He is also the author of the novel "Every Man for Himself," published by Apprentice House Press and numerous feature and historical articles.