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The familiar warble flooded through the fire station and the Tannoy gave a high-pitched whine.
Was it a drill, Tom wondered, at 2:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon?
And then he heard the words, 'Turnout, vehicles 54 and 55. Fire at Penhally Bay Primary School. Query trapped children.'
Fear lanced through him. Please, God, let this be a drill.
Except he knew it wasn't. Their drill was always a fire at 3 King Street, St Piranwhich just so happened to be the address of the main fire station in the area. Which meant that this was real.
He headed straight for engine 54, where the rest of the crew were already stepping into their protective trousers, jackets and boots. Steve, the station manager, was in the front seat, tapping into the computer and checking the details.
'What have we got, Guv?' Tom asked as he swung into the seat next to Steve, the doors went up and the engine sped down the road towards Penhally Bay.
Steve checked the computer screen. 'Explosion and fire at Penhally Bay Primary.' He gave the driver, Gary, the map reference, even though everyone knew exactly where the school was, on the hill overlooking the bay. 'Called in by Rosemary Bailey, the headmistress. The fire's in a corridor by a storeroom and it's blocked off three rooms. Two of the classes were out, so that leaves the quiet room and the toilets. They're still checking off the kids' names, so they're not sure right now if anyone's in there or not.' He paused. 'The storeroom contains all the art stuff, so we're talking about flammable hazards and possible chemical inhalation from glue and what have you. Tom, you're lead. Roy, you're BAECO.' The breathing apparatus entry coordinator kept the control board with the firefighters' tallies in place so he knew who was in the building, how long they'd been in there, and when he needed to call them out because their oxygen supplies would be starting to run low.
'The rest of you, follow Tom's lead. We'll start with the tanks in the appliances, then we'll set the hydrant and check the supply.'
'Right, Guv,' the crew chorused.
'Who's our back-up?' Tom asked. Two engines were always sent out for an initial call, and then more would be called as needed, staggering their arrival.
'King Street's on standby,' Steve said. 'And the paramedics are on their way.'
All standard stuff, Tom knew.
'Nick Tremayne is going to be there, too,' Steve added.
Tom had attended fires with Nick in attendance before, and knew that the GP was unflappable and worked well in a crisis. 'That's good.' And Tom was really relieved that his crew was taking the call, so he could see for himself that his nephew was fine.
And Joey would be fine.
He had to be.
Joey was all Tom had left of his big sister since the car accident that had claimed her life and her husband's just over a month ago, at New Year. Losing her had ripped Tom's heart to shreds; the idea of anything happening to his precious nephew, the little boy his sister had entrusted to his care
His mind closed, refusing to even consider the idea. Joey couldn't be one of the trapped children. He just couldn't.
But, all the way there, Tom was horribly aware of the extra problems that small children brought to a fire. Physically, their bodies couldn't cope as well as an adult's with the heat of a raging fire. And then there was the fear factor. Everyone was scared in a fireyou couldn't see your hand in front of your face, thanks to the choking thick smoke, and the heat and noise were incredible. Children found it even harder to cope with the way their senses were overwhelmed, and sometimes got to the point where they simply couldn't follow directions because they were too frightened to listen.
Please, God, let Joey be safe, he prayed silently.
'Hello, Tommy,' Flora said as Trish Atkins, the teacher of the three-year-olds, brought the next of her charges through to the quiet room where Flora was giving the routine vaccinations. She smiled at the little boy. 'I know Mummy told you why I've come to see your class todaynot with my magic measuring tape to see how tall you all are, but to give you two injections to stop you catching a bug and getting sick.'
Tommy nodded. 'Will they hurt?'
'You'll feel a bit of a scratch,' she said, 'and it's OK to say a big "Ow" and hold Trish's hand really tightly, but it'll be over really quickly and I'll need you to stay still for me. Can you do that?'
'Yes,' he lisped.
'Good boy.' She gave him the choice of which arm and where he wanted to sit; he opted to sit on Trish's lap.
'Mummy told me you're getting a kitten.' Distraction was a brilliant technique; if she could get him chatting about the new addition to their family, he wouldn't focus on the vaccination syringe and he'd feel it as the scratch she'd promised, rather than as a terrifying pain. 'What's he like?'
'What are you going to call him?'
'Ow!' Tommy's lower lip wobbled when the needle went in, but then he said, 'Smudge. 'Cause he's got a big white smudge on his back.'
'That's a great name.' She smiled at him. 'What sort of toys are you going to get him?'
'A squeaky red mouse,' Tommy said. 'Ow!'
'All doneand you were so brave that I'm going to give you a sticker. Do you want to choose one?'
The distraction of a shiny rocket sticker made Tommy forget about crying, just as Flora had hoped it would. She updated his notes, and was about to put her head round the door of the quiet room to tell Trish that she was ready for the next child when she heard a huge bang and then fire alarms going off.
She left her papers where they were and headed out to the main rooms of the nursery. The children were all filing out into the garden, some of the younger ones crying and holding the hands of the class assistants. Flora could see through the large windows that Christine Galloway, the head of the nursery, was taking a roll-call of all the staff and children.
'I think everyone's out, but I'm checking nobody's been left behind,' Trish said from the far end of the room.
'Do you want me to check the toilets?' Flora asked.
'Yes, please.' Trish gave her a grateful smile.
Once they were both satisfied that everyone was out, Flora grabbed her medical kit and they joined Christine and the other teachers. Two fire engines roared up, sirens blaring and blue lights flashing, and they could see smoke coming over the fence from the primary school next door.
'I'd better get next door in case anyone's hurt and they need medical help,' Flora said, biting her lip. She knew all the children in the school, from her work as the school liaison nurse, and the idea of any of them being hurt or, even worse No. It was unthinkable.
'Let us know if there's anything we can do,' Christine said. 'I'll put your notes in my office when we can go back into the building.'
'Thanks.' Flora gave her a quick smile, then hurried next door to the primary school.
The first person she saw was her boss, Nick Tremayne, the head of the surgery in the village. 'Nick, what's happened? I was next door doing the vaccinations when I heard a bang and the fire alarms went off.'
'We don't know what caused itonly that there's a fire.' Nick gestured to the firemen pumping water onto the building.
'Is anyone hurt?'
'Right now, we're not sure. The head's getting everyone out and ticking off names.'
Flora glanced at the building and saw where the flames were coming out. 'That's the corridor by the art storeroomit's full of stuff that could go up.' And she really, really hoped that everyone was out of the block. The corridor led to the storeroom and three prefab rooms. Two of the rooms were used as Year Five classrooms and the third was used as the quiet room, where teachers took children for extra reading practice or tests.
The firefighters were already working to quell the blaze. Some had breathing apparatus on, and others were putting water on the blaze. She could hear one of the fire crew yelling instructions about a hydrant.
Before she could ask Nick anything else, two ambulances screamed up. The paramedic crew and two doctors headed towards them. Flora recognised one of them as Megan Phillips, who lived in the village, though she didn't know Megan's colleague.
'I'm Josh O'Hara, A and E consultant,' the unknown doctor introduced himself. 'And this is Megan Phillips, paediatrician.'
Josh was simply gorgeous, with black tousled hair that flopped in his indigo-blue eyes. Right now he wasn't smiling; but no doubt when he did, any woman under the age of ninety would feel her heart turning over. And that Irish brogue would definitely melt hearts.
Although Flora knew who Megan was, she didn't know the doctor well at all; Megan kept herself very much to herself in the village. So Flora was relieved when Nick stepped in and spoke for both of them. 'Nick Tremayne, head of Penhally Bay Surgeryand this is Flora, my practice nurse and school liaison. Luckily she was doing the MMR vaccinations next door and she's brilliant with kids. Flora, you know Megan, don't you? Can you work with her and I'll work with Josh?'
'Yes, of course,' Flora said.
Though she also noticed that Megan and Josh didn't glance at each other, the way that colleagues usually did. The tension between them was obvious, so either they hadn't worked together before and weren't sure of each other's skills, or they knew each other and really didn't get on. Well, whatever it was, she hoped they'd manage to put it aside and work together until everyone was safe. In this situation, the children really had to come first.
Megan gave her a slightly nervous smile. 'Shall we go and see what's going on?'
Flora nodded. 'The fire drill point's at the far end of the playground, on the other side of the building.'
'We'll start there, then, and see if anyone needs treating,' Megan said. 'As you're school liaison, you must know everyone here?'
Flora felt colour flooding into her cheeks, and sighed inwardly. If only she didn't blush so easily. She knew it made her look like a bumbling fool, and she wasn't. She was a good nurse and she was fine with the childrenand the teachers, now she'd got to know them. She just found herself shy and tongue-tied with adults she didn't know very well. Stupid, at her age, she knew, but she couldn't help it. Pulling herself together, she said, 'I know all the staff and most of the children
I've either worked with their class or seen them for the usual check-ups.'
'That's goodyou'll be a familiar face and that will help them feel less scared,' Megan said.
As they rounded the corner, they could see a woman leaning against the wall, her face white, nursing her arm.
'Patience, this is Megan, one of the doctors from St Piran's. Megan, this is Patience Harcourt. She teaches Year Three,' Flora introduced them swiftly. 'Patience, what's happened to your arm?'
'I'd gone to the storeroom to get some supplies. I'd just switched on the light when it went bang I went straight for the fire extinguisher, but before I could do anything the whole thing went up. I got out of there and closed the fire door to contain it.' She grimaced. 'Thank goodness one of the Year Five classes was doing PE and the other was in the ICT suite.'
'Was anyone in the quiet room?' Flora asked.
Patience shook her head, looking white. 'I hope not, but I don't know.'
'Let's have a look at your arm,' Megan said, and sucked in a breath. 'That's a nasty burn.'
Patience made a dismissive gesture with her other arm. 'I can wait. Check the children over first.'
'Your burn needs dressingthe sooner, the better,' Megan said gently. 'Will you let Flora do it while I check the children?'
The children were shivering because it was cold outside and the teachers had taken them straight outside away from the fire, not stopping to pick up coats; some were still wearing their PE kit. Some were crying, and all were clearly frightened.
'We need to get them huddled together to conserve warmth,' Megan said. 'Under that shelter would be good. And then I can see if anyone needs treating. Flora, when you've dressed Patience's burn, do you want to come and help me?'
'Will do.' Again, Flora could feel the hated colour flood her cheeks. She was glad of the excuse to turn her face away while she delved in her medical kit; then brought out what she needed to dress the burn and make Patience more comfortable.
Tom was training one of the hoses on the flames. He didn't have a clue whether Joey was safely in the playground with the other children because he couldn't see. Although he was frantic to know that Joey was all right, he had a job to do and his colleagues were relying on him not to let them down. He had to keep doing his job and trust his colleagues to do theirs. I swear if he's safe then I'll do better by him, he promised silently to his sister. I'll change my job, give up firefighting and concentrate on him.
And then the headmistress hurried over towards them.
'Is everyone safe?' Steve asked.
Rosemary Bailey looked grim. 'There's still part of one class missing. Some of the Reception children.'
Tom, overhearing her, went cold. Joey was in the Reception year. 'Is Joey all right?' he asked urgently.
Rosemary bit her lip. 'He's not with the others. There's a group of children who'd gone to the quiet room at the end for extra help with reading. He must be with them.'
Tom swallowed hard. 'The quiet room. Is that the room at the end of the corridor?' The room that was cut off, right now, by flames.
'It's near the storeroom where the fire started. Right now, it's structurally unstable,' Steve said. 'How many children are there?'
'Five, plus Matty Roper, the teaching assistant in R2.'
R2. Definitely Joey's class, Tom knew. And he knew Mattyhe'd had twice-weekly meetings with her about Joey since he'd become Joey's guardian. Joey had been struggling at school for the last month, just shutting off, so Tom and Matty had been trying to work out how they could help him settle back in.
Ice slid through his veins. The children were stranded.