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The fire raged.
Hot, thick, black smoke billowed and rolled around them inside the four-unit, two up, two down apartment building that was quickly losing its battle with the whipping flames.
Damn unattended candles.
Damn balloon construction on these cheap-ass buildings.
Damn them all if they didn't get control of this thing, and fast.
The fire had ripped through both levels of the apartments almost before the first due units arrived on scene. Numerous engine companies had responded to the first alarm. Engineer Erin DeLuca, her immediate supervisor, Captain C. J. Gooding, and Firefighter Ryan Drakethe crew on Engine Eighthad been assigned to investigate the bottom-floor, north-side apartment. They'd rescued everyone they could find from the entire building; now all the companies concentrated on tackling the fire, determined to knock it down against all odds. The wall of heat stifled her, and she knew it would get worse before it got better. Once they hit the flames with water, the resulting steam would be a hundred times hotter than the fire itself.
Through her helmet's crappy headset, Erin could hear the sounds of breathing, her own and that of every other firefighter trying to extinguish the virulent blaze. Beyond the Darth Vader breathing chorus came the crash of breaking glass; fire-fighters bumping into walls and furniture in the zero visibility; the clomp-clomp of crews moving about in the apartments above; garbled, back-and-forth radio communications as rooms were cleared; and, of course, the snap and hiss of the monster itself. With the cacophony, radio communications were nearly unintelligible inside her mask and helmet. Thankfully, they were all well aware of and accustomed to the limitations.
Her muscles strained as she and her crew carried in the charged one-and-a-half inch hose line that would hopefully black down the fire in this apartment, at least.
"Hillside Command, from Control."
"Go ahead." Erin heard the battalion chief respond to dispatch, from his strategizing position as incident commander outside the fire.
"You're thirty minutes into the incident, sir."
"Copy, thirty minutes. Thanks."
From her spot in the communications center, dispatch supervisor and Erin's friend, Lexy, gave the time. Erin couldn't help the niggling sense of alarm in her chest. Thirty minutes in, the fire was hot enough to melt steel, and it didn't seem as though they were any closer to controlling it than when they'd first arrived. She checked the LED readout for her air tank. Half-full, which meant some of the bigger guys on the scene were likely near empty.
Erin squinted to see through the blackness, but it was no use. She closed her eyes and let her hearing and sense of touch take over instead. She moved to the left, toward the snapping bursts of fire. Without warning, an ominous splitting sound came from above them. Everyone ducked back as the ceiling above them collapsed, raining down furniture and flame, wood and water and the two firefighter crew that had been in that particular room upstairs. The ash and sparks settled, then everyone moved at once.
Erin immediately dropped to the ground and felt her way to the firefighter closest to her. When she reached him, she leaned down close to his helmet and mask, now jarred away from his face. Bad news.
Fumbling with her stiff gloves, she resituated his safety gear, but not before she recognized him. Her gut clenched. "I've got you, Sully," she yelled, knowing he probably couldn't hear her any better than she could hear anyone else through all the gear. "Can you talk?"
She peered up into the gaping hole just as flames engulfed what was left of the entire apartment overhead.
Her stomach dropped. "Portable Eight-A to Command, Sullivan's down!" she said into her radio. "Second floor is fully involved. I've got Sullivan and I'm coming out."
"Eight-B to Command, we've got Arroyo," came the voice of Drake, amped to the max. "He's unconscious. Unknown extent of injuries."
"Command, from Engine Eight," came Captain Gooding's calm but urgent voice, "we have a collapse and a fully engulfed second floor. Repeat, we have a ceiling collapse from the second floor to the bottom level with two firefighter down."
From outside, the battalion chief's tone came across with a heightened sense of alarm. "Engine Eight's got a collapse. All units, abandon structure. Repeat, abandon structure."
Three sharp alert blasts rang out over the radio, then Lexy's calm, collected voice. "All units on the Hillside Fire, abandon, abandon, abandon. Repeat, abandon, abandon, abandon structure."
Erin heard the battalion chief calling for a PARpersonnel accountability reportfrom all the crews working the fire, to make sure no other firefighter were injured or unaccounted for. She hitched her elbows under Sullivan's arms and dragged him first to the wall, and then following the hose line, out toward the front door she couldn't see. Beneath the smoke, she could barely make out Drake and the captain carrying Arroyo the same way.
When she burst into the late-afternoon air, her bunker gear sooty and steaming from the temperature drop, her vision cleared. She glanced up at the apartments, sucking the last vestiges of air from her tank and feeling sick. They probably wouldn't be able to save much of the structure, if any. A total failure.
She hated that.
A Troublesome Gulch paramedic crew ran up to assist her with Sullivan. Erin glanced over, glad to see Brody Austin there, a damned excellent para-medic, not to mention one of her closest friends.
He laid his hand against the reflective letters that spelled out DeLuca on the back of her bunker coat and leaned closer, concern wrinkling his brow. "You okay?" he yelled.
She nodded. Her biceps shook and twitched from the exertion of dragging burly Jeff Sullivan out, and her breaths came in heaving succession, but she'd be fine.
Seemingly satisfied, Brody joined the other medics who had already started administering aid to Sullivan, while Erin ran back to the door to help the rest of her three-person crew deliver Arroyo to them, as well.
She, Drake and Captain Gooding watched until they were sure Sullivan and Arroyo would be okay, then backed off and headed to the designated rehab area. Fans blew cool air around them. Erin sat on the wide back bumper of the ambulance, un-screwed her air pressure regulator from her mask, pulled off her helmet, then yanked her Nomex hood down to dangle around her neck. Finally, she removed her mask.
Relieved to be free of it, she sucked in her first gulp of cool, fresh air. Sweat rolled down her skin beneath her bunker gear, and if her face looked anything like the others', whipped dogs had nothing on the three of them. She stuck one glove under her arm, extracting her hand and inverting the inside liner, then repeated it with the other glove. After she'd removed her air tank and bunker coat, she held out her shaky arm for one of the rehab EMTs to take her blood pressure.
Drake and the captain did the same.
The trio, breathing as though they'd just gone three rounds with the heavyweight champion of the world, watched from afar as fresh teams battled the fire from outside the unstable structure. Once an Abandon order had been given, their only option was to fight the fire defensively.
The head paramedic in the rehab area handed them each a cold bottle of water. Erin downed the entire thing in one extended swallow, and it didn't touch her thirst.
She glanced over at her captain. "We're going to lose this one, aren't we?" she asked, before wiping the back of her hand across her mouth.
Captain Gooding nodded, running fingers through her sweaty hair. "Damn it."
"Will they reassign us, Cap?"
"Probably not. BC called a second alarm. There are enough fresh crews here to take over. Take your time in rehab." She stared somberly at the fire for a moment, then stood and headed over to the other ambulance, where Sullivan and Arroyo were being loaded.
At least they'd gotten everyone out before the fire took the upper hand, Erin thought. Just then, someone yanked her arm from the side. Instinctively, she jerked away, whipping around to come face-to-face with a soot-covered woman who looked to be at least eight months pregnant. Her maternity dress hung in blackened tatters against her body.
"Please," the woman sobbed, barely able to inhale, "help me."
Erin grabbed both of the woman's upper arms, bracing her. "Talk to me! Are you hurt?"
The woman, so hysterical she couldn't form sentences, gestured vaguely toward the building. "M-my husband "
"What about him?" Erin demanded, giving the woman a small shake. She didn't want to be harsh, but time was of the essence. "Take a deep breath, then tell me."
"H-he went b-back in. F-for the cat." She shook her head and clutched at it as tears streamed down her face. "I haven't seen him s-since. Please!"
Alarm and dread rose inside Erin's throat, threatening to breach her panic dam. She hooked a hand around the woman's arm. "Come on," she said in a kind but firm voice, as she led her toward her immediate supervisor. "Hey, Cap!"