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Briggs, phone! Chief Petrowski's on the line. Says it's beyond urgent."
U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumper Nolan Briggs rushed past teammates Brock Drake and Vince Reardon, who stopped rigging parachutes and looked up. The airmen grew sniper-still and spotter-alert as did the other PJs in Refuge, Illinois's skydiving Drop Zone facility.
Nolan grabbed the DZ phone from teammate Chance Garrison. "Briggs speaking."
"Nolan, I'm tasking your team to a major bridge collapse."
Nolan pressed the phone tighter against his ear and processed Petrowski's words wafting across the line. "Major bridge collapse? Where?" Adrenaline pumping, Nolan eyed his teammates.
They stood at his words and marched close in listen-mode.
"Reunion Bridge over Refuge Riverhold on," Petrowski said.
"Refuge." Nolan hiked his chin to his team while on hold.
The room erupted in activity as airmen grabbed gear.
Nolan had been placed in temporary command while PJ team leader Joel Montgomery traveled abroad with his wife to meet children they were adopting. Second-in-command, Manny Péna, was in surgery to remove pins, following a two-year-old injury incurred during a skydiving accident.
Nolan yanked a notebook from PJ Ben Dillinger's pocket. As Petrowski, back on the line, talked about the rescue mission, Nolan scribbled information.
Stiffening beside Nolan, Ben straightened. "Hey, babe," he called for his fiancée, Amelia, near the round tables across the room. She approached, Ben's brother Hutton following, his Mosaic Down Syndrome causing his eager feet to shuffle.
"Didn't Reece have a field trip today, across the bridge at the museum?" Ben said of his stepdaughter-to-be as hegrabbed Amelia's hand.
"Yes." She scanned the note. Her face turned pasty. "Th-they would have been on the way back. P-probably on the bridge."
Arms numbing, Nolan tightened his grip on the phone as he observed Ben and Amelia. Dread pounded through his body, incinerating the lining of his gut.
The room stilled as implications of Amelia's words sank in. Ben's arms steadied her. "Don't panic. We don't know for sure she was on the bridge when it went."
"What if she was?" Amelia, trembling, slid to a chair.
Nolan squeezed Amelia's shoulder with his free hand. "We'll handle it. Okay? I guarantee Refuge divers are already there."
Amelia managed a catatonic nod. Ben searched Nolan's face. The only other time Nolan had seen Ben look this rattled was when his father passed away last year.
Nolan leaned close to Ben. "Stay with her 'til you hear from me."
Blinking rapidly, Ben looked torn. "We're already two men short. If I don't go, that puts you at only four."
"We'll make do. I can use you here for now. Run the command post. Once we see Reece is okay, you can join us on the bridge."
Ben gave a short nod. "I'll call the church. Tell folks to pray. Refuge hasn't experienced anything like this in its history that I'm aware of. And we don't know who all was on that bridge " Ben's composure faltered.
Nolan knew Ben loved little Reece as though she were his.
"Don't buckle, Dillinger. Keep your head. Make sure our airmen's families are accounted for. Have everyone wait here at the DZ or Refuge B and B. Cell and landlines will be jammed from mass calls going in and out."
Nodding, Ben slipped a bronze arm around his wife-to-be.
Shoulders hunched, Hutton chewed his tongue and blinked close-set eyes while shuffling near. "I praying too, Benny."
"Thanks, buddy." Ben hugged his brother, then faced Nolan. "Can we load? I'll help with that at least."
Nolan covered the phone and nodded.
Two minutes later, gear in arms and courage in their steps, the PJs were out the door.
The harrowing look in Ben's eyes echoed the sentiment screaming through Nolan's mind: had Reece been on that bridge when it collapsed?
"How bad is it?" Nolan asked Petrowski as they sprinted to the waiting chopper minutes later.
"Pretty bad." Aaron Petrowski, commanding officer of their team plus two others, answered above rotor noise. "Bridge collapsed in a V." Aaron heaved an extraction basket hoist into the craft. "Expecting mass casualties if we can't get those people off."
Nolan paced his breathing as he tossed heavy medical packs into the belly of the bird. Diving gear and rescue equipment loaded, Nolan climbed in, followed by his other three teammates.
Petrowski hunkered in and faced the opening. "Where's Ben?"
"Tell you in a minute. What else?" Nolan signaled the pilot to take them up.
Petrowski studied him. "There's a flammable tanker about to boil from flaming cars. If heat expands it, she'll blow."
"Cars near enough to ignite it should something spark?" Nolan asked above howling wind as the chopper lifted.
"Yes. Unfortunately, so is an elementary school bus."
Vince swore softly.
Pulse kicking, Nolan's gut clenched. "Full of little kids?"
Petrowski nodded. "On their way back from a field trip."
Nolan's stomach hollowed. "The reason I had Ben stay behind for now is because his stepdaughter-to-be might be on that bus."
Petrowski's head jerked around. "You serious? Little Reece?"
Anxiety for Ben and Amelia fought for rabid hold but Nolan steadied himself. "Yeah."
As if their team hadn't already been under enough pressure with the possibility of Nolan being plucked from it. No one voiced it, but everyone felt it. Any mission, starting with this one, could be Nolan's last with the team, thanks to superiors wanting to use him elsewhere.
Sighing, Petrowski slid a hand over his silvery-blond buzz. "News air surveillance report a dozen children are on it."
"Can we have the news chopper megaphone them off the bus?"
Petrowski stretched out his legs. "Problem with that is there's no place safe for them to go should the tanker blow. Unless all the cars burn themselves out, that's a mammoth possibility."
Brock's head tilted toward Nolan and Petrowski. "Plan?"
Paper spread over the floor, Nolan diagrammed. "Lift kids in rescue baskets here. Two pararescuemen per litter. Work fast."
"So, what exactly happened? Any word on that?" Brock shifted closer to hear over the chopper blades whipping air. The Pave Low's engine noises gurgled up the southern Illinois sky.
"A small aircraft flew into the support beams near where the bridge connects to land," Nolan answered.
"Steel beams are bending under the pressure. Concrete's crumbling. Engineers at the scene say the bridge is tilting an inch every five minutes. Any second, the rest could give way. At this time nothing short of prayers will brace up that bridge."
He eyed the team. "Refuge divers got to most cars that slipped into the water and helped people out that could be."
"And those that couldn't?" Nolan asked.
"Couldn' t be helped." A grim cloud camouflaged Petrowski's face.
"I hope someone has the sensibility to get the kids off the bus. Though the tanker's volatile, they probably have a better chance off than on. Even minor shifts could hasten its plunge," Nolan said.
Petrowski brushed a hand over his forehead. "Worse thing they could do is get off then back on the bus for any reason." He eyed Nolan. "Pray the bridge holds until we get there. Can't land a chopper on it, so we'll rappel rigs in teams of two."
Nolan ignored Vince's smirk at Petrowski's praying comment. Team brotherhood was stronger than personal feelings.
Once they hit the bridge, everyone would be about the mission.
Screams of a dozen children drifted through the smoke and clamored for Mandy Manchester's attention.
Disregarding her own pain and fear, she scrambled through mazes of twisted metal, forcing her feet across puddles of burning gasoline. "M-must get to them. Please help me."
But who was listening? No one. Not for a long time.
Today, today please hear mefor them.
Determination compelled her beyond an overturned truck. Its driver lifted himself from the cab. He'd be okay, she decided as she ran past. The dawning sight of a crumpled orange school bus clenched her stomach.
Using her uninjured hand, she pried open the door. Fought to cover her mouth at the sight of the driver's forehead, lacerated like the interstate. She was a doctor-in-training! Think she'd have learned to control outward reactions by now. She rushed to press his shirt hem to the angry knot.
"Be okay. Just a little bump," he slurred.
Little? Hardly. "Hold pressure here. Don't let up, okay?" She spoke in calm tones but a take-charge voice. He'd need at least five stitches. So would she, but who was counting?
"I'm a doctor. Who's hurt the most?" Mandy moved on to two adults who identified themselves as teachers. One rested a hand on the other, slumped over.
"Her neck hurts." She peered at Mandy with wide eyes.
"Hold her neck like this and keep it still. Carefully walk her to an area where you'll be seen by First Responders." Mandy demonstrated by placing the teacher's hand on her cohort's neck and jaw. She helped them outside before returning to the mounting pandemonium on the bus, which leaned so far left it felt like it would soon topple over the gaping bridge.
Something inside her screamed to get these children out. Triage training kicking in, she maneuvered down the aisle. Even with careful movement, the bus shifted several inches. Screams cut the air in tones resembling ambulance sirens.
Halted and heart pounding, Mandy grasped a green spongy seat with her good hand. She faced the tousled group.
Several frightened eyes stared back.
"Is anyone hurt bad enough they can't walk?" At her voice, hysteria hushed to whimpers.
A dozen little heads looked at themselves, then all around. Disheveled hair shook and tiny trembling mouths warbled, "No."
"This is terrible and scary, I know. But we're going to get you to safety, okay?" One by one, Mandy took the hands of the littlest ones and matched them with those of an older child.
"Let's make a game of it. Like a reverse Noah's ark. Two-by-two." She ushered each duo out the doors. Once all visible children were off the bus, Mandy directed them to the safest-looking intact portion of the bridge.
Surely authorities knew by now it had collapsed. Surely they knew, and help would be here soon. Though it seemed an hour had passed already, probably only minutes had.
After triple checking over every seat of the bus for unconscious children, Mandy helped the driver off. She assisted him to lie down flat near the teachers and joined the huddle of traumatized children.
"H-how will we get off the bridge?" One little girl eyed their surroundings. Burning cars looked to be melting into the kind of tanker that transported flammable gas. It blocked one exit. A gaping hole the size of Refuge Memorial's pediatric ward blocked the other.
She faced the trembling child. "What's your name, sweetheart?"
"I'm Mandy. I'm training to be a doctor. What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"Good choice. I want you to think about how you would decorate your very first classroom, okay? Think about it really hard. Then I want you to tell me all about it once we get off this bridge. Okay? I'll want every little detail."
Jayna nodded vigorously, eyes still big with fear.
One boy stepped forth. "I wanna be a fireman. They help people." He took the little girl's hand. "Especially people who are very frightened."
Mandy smiled. "What's your name?"
"Caden," the boy said.
"Caden, you'll make a grand fire chief some day."
Please let them live to fulfill their destinies.
"Are there people in the cars?" Jayna's voice escalated.
"No. Thankfully, it looks like everyone escaped before the cars caught fire." Mandy pointed up the bridge. "See? All those people huddling together? They can't get to us, but they'll keep each other calm. That's what I need you to do, too, okay?"
Caden leaned nose to nose with Jayna. "Yeah. We gotta get as brave as the big people. Can ya?"
She nodded and swiped a finger across her nose.
Another girl in a glittery "Princess" logoed shirt moved close and handed Jayna a tattered brown bear. "Here. Bearby will make you brave."
Mandy's heart melted at the little child with teddy-bear-big eyes who looked like she longed to snatch the well-used toy back for herself. "That was nice, sweetie. What's your name?" Mandy asked the girl who clasped Jayna's other hand.
"Reece North. And I want to be a famous rock star with big pink glasses and diva rhinestones when I grow up."
Smiling, Mandy faced the others. "Caden is right. Think you can be that brave?" A bouquet of miniature heads nodded.
Except one. "I got asthma. Smoke makes it hard to breathe." He audibly wheezed. But his color seemed okay. For now.
Mandy pulled him close. "Do you have your inhaler?"
His arms clasped her neck. "On the bus. I think."
"My face feels sunburned," another child said. Mandy noticed. All their cheeks resembled rubies from fire heat. She eyed the bus. Maybe it would be better, safer to get them back on. That way, she'd have the inhaler should the little guy's asthma kick in. Plus, they'd be more shielded from smoke. Then if the tanker exploded, they might be protected from the blast and debris.
Or, putting them back on the bus could help them to die in one unit. Dread sickened her at the thought that any decision she made might hasten the manner of their deaths.
Drowning or burning. Which was worse?
Please show me what to do. I don't know what to do. I just know I don't want them to die.
"H-how will we get off the bridge?" Jayna persisted.
"Experts will know whom to send and what to do." She'd been in Refuge long enough to know its townsfolk would pull together and rise above this epic tragedy.
"I want my mommy!"
"How will Daddy find me?"
"Who will come for us?" Jayna persisted.
Mandy tugged as many of them close as would fit, even though it hurt like mad to move her hand. The others huddled in, looking at her like she was their one and only lifeline.
They're looking to me. But it has to be You. Send help. Hold up this bridge, and hold down the fires.
Peace she hadn't felt in a decade befell her. Thankful He'd heard, and confident He'd act, she met each child's frightened gaze. Then smiled into each face, using her eyes andokay, mental prayersto infuse courage, instill hope and inject calm.
"Someone strong and brave will come. I promise. Someone who rescues people all the time."
"Who?" Jayna's voice persisted. "Who will come rescue us?"
Mandy looked square into two frightened, tearful eyes and said with calm assurance, "Only the best."
"There it is." Nolan observed the unimaginable chaos. His pulse ramped at the surreal devastation.
"Whoa!" Chance's mouth hung open. The team stood as one unit, observing the collapse from the air.
Vince inclined his torso. "Unbelievable."
"Weird to see steel and a slab of concrete we've driven over time and time again " Brock shook his head. "Justgone."
"Okay, guys. Gear up." Nolan grabbed his stuff and lined up at the door. If he was gonna lead his team, he was gonna lead them. Joel was the kind of commander who hit the trenches alongside his men. Nolan would follow Joel's stellar example of being both a humble servant and a confident leader.
As if reading his mind, Petrowski leaned over. "Being Tech Sergeant in charge, you don't have to go, Briggs.