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Gideon O'Brien hopped down from Engine Two and assessed the chaos in front of him. Strapping on his air pack, he started toward his captain. A hand gripped his arm and stopped his forward progress. He turned toward the blonde woman who held him, her large blue eyes glistening with tears. She looked familiar, but he couldn't place where he knew her from. His neighbor's daughter, perhaps?
"My two sons and my cousintheir babysittermust still be inside. I don't see them outside with the other tenants." Her voice quivered. She tightened her hand on his arm and scanned the crowd. "I'm Kathleen Hart. My sons are Jared and Kip. I tried Sally's cell but she didn't answer. Please get them out." A tear slipped down her cheek.
"Where are they?" Gideon moved toward his captain, his palm at the small of her back, guiding her in the direction he wanted her to go. Yes, he realized, she was his neighbor Ruth Coleman's daughter.
"Sally's second-floor apartment is on the east side, the fourth one down on your right. Number 212.
Hurry." Her round eyes fastened on the fire consuming the three-story apartment building on Magnolia Street.
Gideon paused in front of Captain Fox. "Mrs. Hart says her sons and babysitter are still inside. Pete and I can go in and get them." He looked toward the west end of the large structure where the men of Engine One were fighting the flames eating their way through the top level. "There's still time."
"Okay." His captain surveyed the east end. "But hurry. It won't be long before this whole building goes up."
The scent of smoke hung heavy in the air. The hissing sound of water hitting Magnolia Street Apartments vied with the roar of the blaze. Gideon turned toward the mother of the two boys. "We'll find them." He gave her a smile then searched the firefighters for Pete.
When Gideon found him a few feet away, he covered the distance quickly. "Let's go. There are three people trapped on the second floor. East end."
At the main entrance into the building Gideon fixed his mask in place, glancing back at the blonde woman standing near his captain. He had seen that same look of fear and worry many times over his career as a firefighter. He wouldn't let anything happen to her sons and Sally.
Gideon switched on his voice amplifier and headed into the furnace with Pete following close behind him. Through the thick cloud suspended from the ceiling in the foyer, the stairs to the second floor loomed. Crouching, he scrambled up the steps. The higher he went, the hotter it became.
On the landing, he peered to the right, a wall of steely smoke obscuring his view. To the left, the way he needed to go, the gunmetal gray fog hovered in the hallway, denser at the top.
Gideon dropped to his hands and knees and crawled toward Sally's apartment. Sweat coated his body from the adrenaline pumping through him and the soaring temperature. The building groaned. Visibility only three feet in front of him, he hugged the wall, his heart pounding. He sucked air into his lungs, conscious of the limited amount of oxygen in his tank.
Calm down. Not much time. In and out.
Mindful of every inhalation, he counted the doors they passed in the corridor. One. Two. Three. The next apartment was Sally's. His breathing evened out as he neared his goal.
At number 212's door, Gideon tried the handle. Locked. He rose and swung his ax into the wooden obstruction, the sound of it striking its target reverberating in the smoke-filled air.
When a big enough hole appeared, Pete reached inside and opened the door. A pearly haze, not as heavy as in the corridor, engulfed the room. His partner rushed into the apartment, Gideon right behind him. In the small foyer, he noticed a large television on in the living room but didn't see anyone in there.
"I'll take the left. You the right," Gideon said, making his way down the short hallway to the first bedroom. "Fire department, is anyone here?" His gaze riveted to a double bed. He quickly searched everywhere two young boys might hide. Nothing.
For a few seconds a memory intruded into his mind, taking his focus off what needed to be done. He shoved it away, went back in the hall and crossed to the other bedroom. After checking it, he came back out into the corridor and opened the last door to a bathroom. Empty.
He pictured his neighbor's daughter next to his captain, waiting for them to bring her sons out safely. The thought that he might not be able to quickened his breathing for a moment.
When he met up with Pete in the small entryway, his partner said, "All clear in the kitchen as well as the living and dining rooms."
"The same in the bedrooms."
"Gideon, Pete, get out. Mrs. Hart sees her children and their babysitter. They just arrived and are safe," his captain's deep gravelly voice came over the radio.
"We're on our way." Relieved the two boys and Sally were all right, Gideon and Pete made their way back into the main hallway.
The smoke had grown thicker, darker. The crackling and popping sounds of the fire overrode the rumbling noise from the water continually bombarding the structure. A warning went off, signaling Pete only had five minutes of air left in his tank.
Our time is running out.
As those words flashed into Gideon's thoughts, his breathing sped up for a few seconds before he reined it in. He'd been in similar situations. They would make it.
Gideon gestured to his friend to go first. Every second counted. Pete came out of the apartment and got down on all fours, hurriedly heading for the stairs. Gideon crept along a body length behind his partner. As he crawled past the second apartment, his low-pressure air alarm alerted him to the need to move even faster.
But the nearer he came to the stairs, the soupier his surroundings were. He barely made out the back of Pete only a foot in front of him.
Gideon's shoulder brushed against the door frame of the apartment nearest to the steps. Almost there. His inhalations slowed even more to conserve as much oxygen as possible. But heat warmed the inside of his protective suit, and sweat rolled down his face. Its salty drops stung his eyes. He blinked, his vision blurring for a few seconds.
Then suddenly from above, wood and debris came tumbling down. Gideon lost sight of Pete in the dense smoke and dust. The crashing sound of a beam boomed through the air.
Rolling onto his back, Gideon reached for his radio when another metallic moan cut through the noise of the fire. A piece of timber landed across his chest, knocking his radio from his hand. A sharp pain lanced a path through his upper torso. Then a second slab of lumber fell on top of the first. Gideon stared up as the rest of the ceiling plummeted. Air rushed out of his lungs, and blackness swirled before his eyes.
Holding her two sons' hands, Kathleen Hart watched them carry a firefighter out of the burning building. Fear bombarded her from all sides. He could die because she'd mistakenly thought her children and Sally were inside. She relived the few seconds when she'd seen Jared and Kip racing toward her with Sally Nance right behind them. The elation they weren't trapped took hold. Then the knowledge she had unnecessarily sent two men into a blaze to find the trio swept away the joy. Now one of them was injured. Because of her.
She turned to Sally. "Please keep the boys with you. I need to see how the firefighter is doing."
"Sure. I'm so sorry you didn't realize I took Jared and Kip to the park. When the weather's good, we've been doing that. With the storm coming, I didn't know when we would get another chance anytime soon. I never in a thousand years thought my apartment building would catch fire and " Her cousin gulped back the rest of her words and stared at the man on the stretcher being attended to by the paramedics.
"I know, Sally." Kathleen looked down at her sons, whose eyes were round and huge in their pale faces. "We'll talk later." She squeezed their hands gently, drawing their attention. "Stay with Sally. I'm going to check on the firefighter."
Tears shone in Kip's eyes. "Tell him we're sorry."
She stooped and grasped her nine-year-old's upper arms. "Honey, it isn't your fault."
And it isn't my fault, either. It was an unfortunate accident. If only she could believe that.
Even knowing that in her mind didn't make her feel any better as she rose and headed toward the ambulance into which the paramedics were loading the firefighter.
One of the paramedics hopped into the back of the emergency vehicle while the other shut the doors and started toward the front of the truck. She knew the paramedic because she worked as a nurse at Hope Memorial Hospital. Kathleen hurried her steps and caught up with the driver before he climbed into the cab.
"How is he, Samuel?"
"O'Brien may have some internal injuries." Samuel gave her a once-over. "Did you just come from the hospital?"
Still dressed in her scrubs, Kathleen nodded. "Will he make it?"
"He should, barring any complications." The paramedic jumped up into the ambulance.
Kathleen backed away from the vehicle and watched it leave the scene. She squeezed her eyes closed, still seeing the flashing lights in her mind. She couldn't shake the tragedy of the situationone she'd had a part in. Just like another one, not long ago.
She tried to clear her mind of the memory. When would this go away?
Someone tugged on her arm. She looked down at Jared, her seven-year-old son, with worry in his expression. "Sally said he went in searching for us. Is that true?"
"Yes. When I didn't see you outside with the other tenants, I thought you all were still inside."
"Is he going to be okay?" Kip asked as he approached her. Sally followed right behind her son.
"The paramedic thinks so." She hoped Samuel was right.
"Mom, he's got to be." Kip's lower lip quivered. "I begged Sally to take us to the park."
"Honey, you didn't know what might happen." She needed to listen to her own words, but that wasn't as easy as it sounded. "Let's get you two to Nana's, and then I'll go back to the hospital and check on him after the doctor has had time to see him in the E.R." Kathleen shifted toward her twenty-three-year-old cousin. "I'm so sorry about this, Sally. Do you want to go to Mom's?" She threw a glance toward the blaze. "It doesn't look like much will be left. You'll need a place to stay. You're welcome to stay with me and the boys."
"I appreciate the offer, but I can go to my mom's. I need to stay and talk with some of my neighbors. See what happened. Then I'll give Mom a call and have her come pick me up. She should be home. With Hurricane Naomi bearing down on us, I would have stayed at Mom's anyway." Sally looked south toward the water only a few blocks from the apartment building.
Kathleen couldn't think of that. The storm in the Gulf was still several days away from Hope, Mississippi, a quaint town of twenty thousand between Mobile and New Orleans. Her hometown of stately antebellum homes along the water thrived on tourism and the fishing industry. But anything could happen between now and the date the National Weather Service projected Naomi would come ashore in the vicinity of Hope.
"I called your cell earlier when I arrived. All I could do was leave a message."
Sally dug into her jean pocket and withdrew her phone. She winced. "Sorry. I had the sound off." Her cousin peered off to Kathleen's side. "Will Kip and Jared be okay?"
Kathleen followed the direction of Sally's attention. Both of her sons' gazes were glued to the commotion taking place at the Magnolia Street Apartments. Kip chewed his lower lip while her younger son took several feet forward. "I'd better get them away before Jared is in the middle of the chaos. I'll talk to you later. If you need any help, please call." She hugged her cousin, then made her way to her children, who were entranced by the plume of smoke bellowing into the sky being chased by yelloworange flames.
Her mother would watch them while she went to check on the firefighter. She owed him that much for what he did for her. Kathleen clasped first Jared's hand, then Kip's. "We need to go to Nana's."
"But, Mom, I want to see what happens." He had told her on a number of occasions he wanted to be a firefighter.
"No. They don't need any more people here watching." Kathleen scanned the crowd that had gathered across the street from the apartments. "Besides, if Nana hears about this, she'll get worried."
"Will she even be back from Biloxi yet?" Kip trudged toward her car parked several buildings away.
"I hope so." Because she needed to go to the hospital. The firefighter had to be all right.