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The Late, Late Show is on the television and most of us are sitting in the kitchen when the bells start to ring. I take a last sip of tea as I count onetwo onetwothreefourfive one onetwothreefourfive. The kitchen chairs empty as the last number comes in. Box 2515. Intervale Avenue and Kelly Street.
We can smell the smoke as the pumper turns down Intervale, and hands automatically start pulling boot-tops to thighs, clipping coat-rings closed, and putting on gloves. The pumper stops in front of a building just before we reach Kelly Street. We're about to stretch the hose when there is an anguished scream from inside the building. A boy is running out of the doorway, his shirt and hair aflame.
Ladder 31 and Chief Solwin are right behind us, and one of the ladder men goes rapidly to the boy's assistance. Willy Knipps takes the first folds of the hose and heads into the building. Carroll and I follow, dragging the rest of the hose with us. Royce and Boyle are still on the sidewalk donning masks.
Lieutenant Welch is waiting for us on the second floor, crouched low by a smoking door. There are four apartments on the floor, and three of the doors are open, their occupants fleeing. Chief Solwin arrives, stops for a moment at the top of the stairs, and then rushes into the apartment adjoining the rooms on fire. He starts kicking through the wall with all his strength. The smoke rushes through the hole, darkening the apartment and the hall. Knipps and I are coughing and have to lie on our bellies as we wait for the water to surge through the hose. Carroll has gone down for another mask. He can tell it's goingto be a tough, snotty job.
Billy-o and Artie Merritt start to work on the locked door. It's hard for me to breathe with my nose to the marble floor of the hall, and I think of the beating Artie and Billy-o must be taking as they stand where the smoke is densest, swinging on the ax, hitting the door with the point of the halligan tool. The door is tight and does not give easily.
Captain Frimes arrives with Charlie McCartty behind him. "Give me a man with a halligan," Chief Solwin yells, and Captain Frimes and McCartty hustle into the adjoining apartment.
"I'm sure I heard someone in there," Chief Solwin says.
Charlie widens the hole in the wall. The Chief and Captain Frimes are on their knees as Charlie works. After furious hacking, the hole is through to the next apartment. Charlie tries to squeeze through the bay-the sixteen-inch space between the two-by-fours. He can't make it. Not with his mask on. He turns to take the mask off, but before he can get it off Captain Frimes enters through the hole.
The front door has still not been opened, and Frimes knows that only luck or the help of God will keep the whole place from lighting up. He crawls on the floor toward the front door, swinging his arms before him as if swimming the breast stroke. His hand is stopped by the bulk of a body, Iying on the floor. It's a big frame, and Captain Frimes struggles to drag it toward the hole in the wall. The fire is raging in three rooms at the end of the hall, and spreading fast toward the front of the building. McCartty is just crawling through the hole as the Captain passes by with the body. "Here, Cap, here," McCartty yells. The smoke is so thick that Captain Frimes missed the hole. McCartty grabs the body under the arms, and pulls.
Captain Frimes can hear Billy-o and Artie working on the door, and he makes a desperate effort back down the hall. He reaches the front door and feels the long steel bar of a Fox lock. Like a flying buttress, the bar reaches up from the floor and braces the door closed. Captain Frimes knows locks as well as he knows his own kids' names, and he kneels and turns the bolt of the lock. He jumps back, and the door swings open. Billy-o and Artie grab the Captain, who is overcome by smoke and can barely move now, and pull him out of the apartment.
Charlie McCartty walks past us with the body in his arms. It is a boy, about sixteen or seventeen years old. He is a strapping black youth, but McCartty is a powerful man, and carries him easily to the street. The boy is still breathing, but barely. McCartty knows that he has to get some oxygen into him if he is to live, and begins mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The hose comes to life with water as Billy-o and Artie pull the Captain down the stairs. Lieutenant Welch gives the "okay" to Knipps, and we start crawling down the hall. We reach the first burning room, and Knipps opens the nozzle. The room is filled with the crackling of fire, and as the water stream hits the ceiling the sound is made louder by falling plaster, steaming and hissing on the wet floor.
The fire darkens quickly, and the smoke banks to the floor. There is no escape from it, and Knipps knows that he has to push into the last room for a rest. "Give me some more line" he yells, and his order is relayed back through the hall by Lieutenant Welch's voice: "Lighten up on the inch-and-a-half." The hose moves forward, and Knipps with it.
Boyle moves up, breathing easily in his mask. He is going to relieve Knipps on the line, but he trips in the middle of the room. He feels around the floor to see what tripped him, and his hands sink into another body. "I got a victim here!" he yells through the mouthpiece of the mask. Carroll joins him quickly, and they carry the body out.
Royce moves up to the nozzle, and Knipps says that he thinks he can make it. But Lieutenant Welch orders him to take a blow, and Royce takes the nozzle. Knipps stands to make a quick exit to clean air, but the smoke has gotten to him. He vomits, and the stream of food and acid falls over the back of my coat and boots. He doesn't stop to apologize.
Vinny Royce moves slowly and deliberately through the second and third rooms. Lieutenant Welch is next to him all the while, saying, "You got it, Vinny. You got it," and coughing continuously. I am right behind humping the hose and leaning into it to relieve the fifty-pound-per-square-inch back pressure that is straining Vinny's arms. As the third room darkens down completely, I run to the fire-escape window and climb out of it. I lie on my back on the narrow steel strips of the fire escape, taking the air, sucking the oxygen from it, not taking the time to look at anything.
Boyle and Carroll lay the second body on the sidewalk, next to the boy McCartty carried out and is now using the mechanical resuscitator on. Carroll looks at the body before him. He is a teenager also, and his clothes are like charred bits of paper sticking to his skin. He is badly burned, and the flesh on parts of his face has opened so that it looks like there are pink patches woven into his black skin. Boyle turns away and vomits as Benny plugs the face-piece connection into the regulator of the resuscitator. He puts his finger into the face piece, testing it, making sure there is the quick, clicking sound of air being pushed and relieved-in and out, in and out. The mechanical apparatus forces pure oxygen into the lungs until they expand and build up enough pressure to push the air out again. Benny tilts the boy's head back, and fits the face piece onto the burned face. He holds the mouthpiece tightly with both hands to ensure a good seal, because the thing doesn't work if the oxygen escapes. Boyle places one hand over the other on the boy's chest. And he pumps. Like a heart. Sixty times a minute. "He's as dead as a board," Boyle says.
"Yeah," Benny says, "but we have to try."
Engine 73 stretched a line to the floor above the fire. One room was lost, but they stopped the fire there. Now they have taken up their hose, and are on their way back to their Prospect Avenue firehouse. Ladder 31 and Ladder 48 are still here, pulling the ceilings and walls. Vinny has taken his mask off, and is waiting for the men of the truck companies to finish their work. One quick bath, a final wash down, and we'll take up.
Chief Solwin is supervising the operation, and Allen Siebeck asks him, between pulls on his hook, "What happened to that guy who was on fire, Chief?"
"The police put him in the car and rushed him to the hospital, but I understand he didn't make it. The doctor pronounced him DOA."
"How the hell did he get out?" Allen asks.
"The only thing I can figure is that he got out the fire-escape window, and went downstairs and through the hall, burning all the while."
Bill Finch, Chief Solwin's aide, enters the room. "What should I do with the gas cans, Chief?" he asks.
"Just leave them here. The fire marshals will be here shortly."
While Billy-o was searching the rooms, he found two gas cans, and Artie found a third in the hall. The one in the hall was still half full.
"That's somethin', isn't it?" Vinny says, making a facial gesture of disgust and dejection. "These kids were probably torching the place, and it lit up on them. I know it sounds lousy to say, but if it happened more often people would learn, and we wouldn't have so many torch jobs."
Lieutenant Welch joins us, and we begin to talk about the fire, as we do after each job. "Did you notice that the whole place was charred?" he asks, as he leads us to the front of the apartment. We look at the walls in all of the rooms, and they are bubbled and crisp. "You can see," he says, "that there was a great amount of intense heat here, but when we got here there were only three rooms going. The kids must have spread gasoline all over, and there was a flash fire. It probably burned through the whole place for a few moments, and then burned itself out, except, of course, in the front three rooms, where there was enough oxygen to keep the fire going. It's like lighting a candle in a mayonnaise jar, and then putting the top on; the candle will burn until the flame eats all the oxygen in the jar, and then it will go out."
Two fire marshals arrive and begin to question the Chief, Captain Frimes, and Lieutenant Welch. They are dressed in wide-lapeled jackets and colorful ties. If I were in a downtown bar I would figure them for detectives, because they wear their jackets opened and have tough but handsome faces. Their job is essentially that of a police detective, but they are responsible only for crimes connected with fires. They're firefighters just like us, but they would rather wear a gun at their side than have a nozzle in their hands. I was asked once if I would like to be a marshal, but I figured that I applied to be a firefighter because I wanted to fight fires. If I had wanted to investigate crimes I would have applied to be a policeman. The marshals take down the information they think necessary, and leave for the hospital. One of the teenagers is still living, and they want to see if he can answer some questions before he dies. They take the gas cans with them.
The truckmen are finished with their overhauling work, and Vinny gives the rooms a last spray. We drain the hose, repack it, and head back to the firehouse. It is near six o'clock now, and the brightness of the day begins to invade the South Bronx.
In the kitchen again. The men haven't bothered to wash up, and they sit before their steaming cups of coffee, with smoke and mucus-stained faces. They are talking about the ironic justice of the fire, although they don't call it ironic justice but "tough shit." None of us want to see anyone killed, but there is a sad kind of "it's either you or me" irony here. We remember all the obvious torch jobs we have been called into, all the vacant buildings, the linoleum placed over holes in the floor so the firefighters would fall to the floor below, the people killed in the rooms above a fire because the tenant below had a fight with his wife and set the place up, and the burns, cuts, and broken limbs we have suffered because of them. Any one of us could have been killed in that fire. But it was the arsonists who were killed this time.
Willy Knipps comes into the kitchen, and I remember Vinny Royce washing the vomit from my coat and boots. I had forgotten about it, but Vinny noticed it and put the nozzle on me, washing me clean. Ordinarily I would say something funny about this, something like, "Hey, Knipps, next time you go into a fire bring a bucket with you. Huh?" But I'm too tired.
It was four days later that Benny Carroll asked me, "Did you hear about the fire we had the other night, the one where the two kids were killed?"
"I was there, Benny, don't you remember?"
"I don't mean it that way, dummo, I mean about the investigation."
"No. Tell me about it."
"Well, the marshals were here last night, and told the story. It seems that the landlord wanted that apartment vacant, and he knew that the people wouldn't be there that night. So he hired some guy to torch the place. The guy then hires the three kids to light it up, and when they were in there spreading the gasoline the guy threw a match in and locked the door on them. They're looking for the guy now for a double murder. It looks like the kid Captain Frimes got out is gonna live."
Benny was going to continue with the story, but the bells came in. Now I am on the back step of the pumper, and thinking that it wasn't ironic justice at all. It's what always happens in the South Bronx. The real devil gets away without a burn, and the children of the South Bronx are the victims.
Posted March 3, 2006