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At 3:00 a.m., most of the guys at Fire Station 59 were either asleep or watching a cheesy action movie. But for a few of them around the scarred Formica table, fortunes were being won and lost.
"Remind me--does a straight beat a flush, or is it the other way around?" The one woman at the poker table looked at her two opponents with "innocent" big blue eyes.
Ethan Basque suppressed a groan. Talk about beginner's luck! He laid his crummy cards face down on the table. "Doesn't matter, Priscilla. You win again."
"Not so fast," Tony objected. "Pris, sweetie, a flush beats a straight. Do you want to make a bet?"
Priscilla checked her cards and worried her lower lip with her teeth. "Okay." And she pushed all her chips to the center of the table, about twenty bucks' worth.
Tony groaned. "Forget it. You win."
Priscilla smiled sweetly and raked the chips to her side of the table. "Maybe next time you'll let me teach you how to play bridge, instead of insisting on poker."
Ethan laughed at Priscilla's sheer audacity. "Soon you'll be wanting us to drink tea and paint our fingernails." But the comment had no bite. Though not all of his coworkers would agree, he actually liked having a female around the fire station. He and Tony had made it known that anyone who messed with Pris was messing with them, which hadn't made them the most popular guys in a place where rookies were already at a disadvantage.
Tony gathered the cards together and shuffled. "My deal. Seven-card stud, this time. I'm getting my money back."
"If your luck changes." Priscilla arranged her chips into neat, even stacks.
And then the jolting electronic buzz ofan alarm filled the station and abruptly ended the game. Tony dropped the cards on the table and three chairs scraped back as the firefighters headed, without a word, to the pole hole.
Ethan's gut tightened as it did every time the alarm sounded. So far, as the three newest members of this company, he and his buddies hadn't faced anything more serious than a smoldering Dumpster, a small kitchen fire and a minor car accident. He'd never even had to stretch hose. But he knew the day they'd trained for was coming, and he anticipated it with both excitement and dread.
Most of the older, more experienced firefighters took the stairs, but the three rookies couldn't resist using the slick brass pole. Station 59 was one of only three in Dallas that still had poles. Ethan landed with perfect control at the bottom, followed quickly by the other two. Each headed for a different vehicle.
Ethan was first to the ladder truck. He stepped into his pants, which were waiting for him by his assigned station. Then he grabbed his coat. Loaded down with forty-plus pounds of turnout gear, he vaulted into the backseat. The ambulance's engine fired up first, and Ethan knew Tony--on paramedic duty--was about to roll out. Tony had been a paramedic for a couple of years before he'd applied to Dallas Fire-Rescue. Priscilla was on the engine. She would be their "nozzle man," on the hose with Otis Granger.
The rest of Ethan's unit boarded the truck, but none of the others acknowledged him. He, Tony and Priscilla were the "probies," the rookies, the untried. At this point there was no trust, no camaraderie.
Not yet. Maybe never.
Lieutenant Murph McCrae rode shotgun in the officer's seat. As a rookie, Ethan's job was to stick close to McCrae, watch and learn. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except McCrae clearly didn't want a rookie at his elbow. The rest of his unit consisted of Captain Eric Campeon, the driver, who would be in charge of their rig, and Bing Tate, a thoroughly obnoxious guy who liked to crack filthy jokes in front of Priscilla in a vain effort to embarrass her.
As the engine rolled, they got the word from dispatch. The second alarm had gone out--which meant their wagon was on its way to a fully involved fire. The truck sped through the streets of Dallas's Oak Cliff section, and Ethan's heart thundered inside his chest. This was it. He was off to meet the beast--fire.
Fifty-nine wasn't the first company to arrive at the two-story apartment building, where smoke was pouring out of a lower window. The captain from Station 21, now Incident Commander, was already organizing resources and developing strategy. News traveled in shouts and nervous whispers: People were trapped inside.
"We're going inside," the IC bellowed. The firefighters'assignments streaked through the chain of command.
Three hose units went in through the building's front door--"stretching heavy." As he waited in the staging area to get his orders, Ethan watched the hose units. He didn't see Priscilla among them, and he tried not to worry about her.
"McCrae," Captain Campeon ordered, "you and the rookie run a ladder up to the second floor, to that window." He pointed to a dark window at the end of the building, two doors down from the burning unit.
"Let the nozzle guys go in first, then follow and initiate a preliminary search-and-rescue."
Ethan was going in.
As Ethan and McCrae pulled a wall ladder off the truck, McCrae was quiet, calm, focused on his task. His movements were swift but controlled. Ethan ordered himself to adopt the same attitude. No panic, no rushing. Mistakes were made when you rushed.
The hose went up first. Otis Granger, a large African-American man Priscilla was assigned to stick close to, climbed the ladder first, dragging another smaller ladder with him. Priscilla followed with the hose. Her pristine beige coat stood out from the others', as did Ethan's. He watched her disappear through the window and said a silent prayer she would be okay.
With his air mask in place, Ethan climbed his first ladder into his first real--post-training--burning building. His knees felt shaky, and every survival instinct he was born with screamed, No. Go back. Run! But the instant he climbed through the window, all those months of training took control. He slowed his breathing so he wouldn't suck down thirty minutes of air in ten.
All he had to do was follow Murph McCrae. Murph was a cranky old guy, but everyone said he knew his stuff.
Ethan and McCrae did a preliminary search of the first apartment, following the walls counterclockwise as Otis and Priscilla hatcheted their way through the ceiling. Though smoke had already seeped in, Ethan's flashlight penetrated and visibility was still pretty good. They found no one.
The next apartment was a different story. They chopped a hole through a wall--easier than breaching the locked solid-core door--and stepped in. Smoke met them, pouring through the opening in an opaque cloud. In moments, they were walking into black soup.
"Get down," McCrae ordered, but Ethan was already dropping to his hands and knees, trying not to think about whether the apartment below was involved; whether the floor beneath him was burning. He proceeded around the room, again counterclockwise, feeling along the walls, keeping the reflective stripes of McCrae's pants in view at all times.
"I've got a victim," McCrae reported, his voice sounding way too calm in the radio earpiece, and Ethan's heart pounded inside his chest. His first major fire, and someone's life might depend on the actions he took in the next few seconds.
"Two victims," McCrae corrected himself. "Woman and child. And...Christ almighty, a cat." McCrae had made it clear he didn't like cats.
Ethan quickly crawled forward, finding the victims by feel. "I've got the kid," he said. The tiny girl had a wiggling kitten in her arms, and she wasn't about to let go. Ethan grasped her by the elbows and started dragging, backing out the way he'd come. The child squirmed and cried, and Ethan recognized the pronounced wheezing of an asthmatic. She fought him every step of the way, but he couldn't risk swinging her up into his arms. Even a few feet higher, the temperature could be hot enough to singe skin.
"It's okay, I'm here to help you," he said over and over.
From a few feet away, he could hear the woman coughing and then gasping out, "My baby... Save my baby...first."
"I've got her," Ethan yelled, hoping she could hear him through his oxygen mask and over the chaotic noise of rushing water and crackling fire. Hoping there wasn't a second child somewhere. "McCrae to Incident Command." Ethan heard the call go out through his earpiece. "We've got two victims, taking them out the window. Requesting assistance."
Because the girl was so small, Ethan made quick progress with her, half crawling, half duck-walking as he dragged her along the carpet. She stopped struggling and grew frighteningly quiet.
Hold on. Oh, God. Please, little girl, hold on. Smoke now filled the apartment, though the open window provided some ventilation. Ethan heard shouting and banging above him--Priscilla and Otis battling the blaze, and others on the roof, opening ventilation holes.
When Ethan reached the window with the child, another firefighter was waiting at the top of the ladder. Ethan quickly stood and passed the frail child--who, amazingly, was still clutching the kitten--through the window. Her breathing was labored, but at least she was breathing. Almost as soon as she'd disappeared, another helmet ascended and a pair of gloved hands reached out for the second victim.
Ethan joined McCrae, and together they dragged the woman the rest of the way to the window. Ethan swung her up in his arms, only then getting a glimpse of her blackened face and the tumble of thick, dark hair. Her lids fluttered and she stared up at him, her dark eyes filled with primal fear.
"Samantha?" Her voice was weak. "We got your little girl. Is she the only one?" Don't let there be more.
"Yes. Please save her."
And in those brief seconds, just before he handed her off to another firefighter, Ethan felt a current run between them. Maybe it was just the adrenaline pumping through his body, but it nearly knocked him off his feet.
McCrae punched him in the shoulder and brought him back to his senses. They had more work to do.
They continued their search-and-rescue but found no other victims, alive or dead.
An airhorn penetrated the sound of the fire and rushing water. That was the signal to clear the premises.
"Move!" McCrae boomed. "This building could go any second!"
Ethan retreated the way he'd come in, through the window, with McCrae right behind him. A loud whoosh and a spray of sparks from the roof indicated a collapse at the other end of the structure.
As Ethan hit the ground, he looked back and up, anxious until he saw Priscilla and Otis emerge.
He spotted a few of the building's residents, in night-clothes or with sheets wrapped around them, staring at the remains of their home with dazed looks on their faces. But the dark-haired woman and her daughter were nowhere to be seen.
They'd probably already gone to the hospital--maybe in Tony's wagon.
He couldn't worry about that now. There was lots more work to be done here.