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The ground trembled.
Captain Joe Ripani of the Courage Bay Fire Department would recall later that it hadn't felt like such a big deal. More like a Magic Fingers bed he remembered from a cheap motel on a family vacation when he'd been a kid. Just a little shimmy as the ancient plates far beneath the Earth's surface groaned and complained and rubbed against each other.
Joe glanced from one member of his squad to the next. Everyone had stopped in the middle of his or her task and taken note of the slight vibration. But no one really looked worried. It was California, after all. A little earthly movement was expected from time to time.
Still, Joe had a bad feeling in his gut. That little tremble telegraphed a tension that crept up his spine, setting off a too-familiar flare of anticipation with each vertebra it climbed. Not good. Salvage, the firehouse's big, black Labrador mascot, apparently had the same feeling. He went still, then whined fretfully.
A full fifteen minutes passed before the true disaster struck.
Jefferson Avenue Firehouse shook as the ground rumbled for an endless thirty seconds. Joe and his crew were already jumping into the necessary gear when the alarm sounded. By the time central dispatch passed on the location, the trucks were rolling out onto the street, sirens wailing.
Traffic on the streets of Courage Bay had come to an abrupt halt, with vehicles sitting haphazardly in the middle of intersections. Pedestrians were still running for cover, though the initial tremor had passed. They all knew that aftershocks could be every bit as lethal as the quake itself. And there would be aftershocks. For days, possibly even weeks, causing nothing more than minor distress, but all the while holding out potential for much, much more.
Joe's fingers tightened around the steering wheel of the firehouse truck. So far, there didn't appear to be too much physical damage. At least not that he could determine from the brief glances he afforded as he cut through the stalled traffic. No reports of fallen buildings, collapsed freeways or overpasses had rattled across the airwaves yet. But that assessment changed when he reached his destination.
The Madison Avenue parking garage had partially collapsed. Joe told himself that at two o'clock in the afternoon, most folks were likely safely tucked away in offices or the various shops that lined the downtown area. Lunch was long over. If he was lucky, the owners of the vehicles parked in the garage wouldn't be anywhere near the collapsed structure.
The instant he skidded to a stop outside the damaged garage, he knew the situation wasn't going to be that simple.
Dozens of pedestrians, co-workers and family members were crying out for helploved ones or associates were trapped inside the building. A young woman, clearly pregnant, gripped several shopping bags as she frantically tried to explain to a police officer that her mother had gone for the car while she waited in a nearby boutique. Everyone seemed to be talking at once.
Blue lights throbbed and yellow tape fluttered in the breeze as a couple of cops worked to cordon off the area while half a dozen others struggled to hold back the panicked crowd of onlookers.
In the few minutes that had elapsed since the ground shook, Joe knew that a number of things had happened that the average person would not be aware of but would later be grateful for. Rescue resources had been dispatched in response to incoming calls. The first on the scene, whether paramedics, cops or firefighters, had assessed the situation and called for the additional resources needed. With this kind of disaster, the Incident Command System, or ICS, an emergency-management system used to coordinate personnel and equipment resources from multiple agencies, would be put in place.
But Joe had only one concern now. He tuned out the chaos and shouted instructions to his crew. "We'll cover one level at a time."
The parking garage stood four stories, the first of which was completely leveled. Dread pooled in his gut. Anyone on that level would likely be beyond his help. He said a quick prayer for them and headed into the garage.
"Cap'n, you know we can't go in there until the engineers assess structural integrity." Shannon O'Shea's anticipatory tone belied her warning. "It's not safe."
Joe paused long enough to meet her gaze. "Is it your recommendation that we wait for that resource to arrive?" he demanded. He didn't really need to hear her answer. Shannon, like any good firefighter, was every bit as determined to go in now as he was, but someone had to say the words had to accept the responsibility for what could happen.
"No, sir," she retorted without hesitation. "I'm prepared to go in now." The other firefighters crowding behind her chimed in with their agreement.
"Let's roll." Joe gave the final authorization.
Conscious of the risk he'd given his squad permission to take, Joe led the way, climbing over the rubble to reach the second level. Slabs of concrete lay upended where T-bars had detached from the outside wall, allowing it to slowly collapse. Time would not be on their side.
"Looks like two and three could go at any minute," O'Shea noted, reaching the same conclusion that he had.
"Yep." Joe didn't slow in his upward movement. There was no time to stop and think. The right side of the second level had dropped several feet, while the entire third floor canted to one side, threatening to give at any second. "Guess that means we'll have to work fast," he said to her with a dim smile. Shannon was good. One of his best. He'd never needed her more than right now.
"And pray," she added, her own movements not slowing.
Dust from the settling debris filtered into his nostrils as he cautiously entered the second level and analyzed the situation. The sound of groaning metal echoed from somewhere. Damaged electrical system, he noted as he moved farther inside. The garage's interior lights would have been helpful, since rubble pretty much blocked the sun. Flashlights clicked on as his team pushed forward, spreading out and cautiously beginning the search for victims trapped in automobiles and beneath fallen debris.
Structural engineers would arrive eventually. What he would give right now for a couple of theodolites to monitor any movement of the building. That very equipment was on order. His team already had the proper training. Without the equipmenthe knew the rules he should wait for approval to enter the structure. But if he waited, people would die. Like that pregnant lady's mother. He couldn't sleep at night with something like that on his conscience.
But what about his squad?
"Damn." The muttered curse echoed across the wireless communications link that kept the squad connected and proved every bit as vital as an umbilical cord. It was the voice of Monte Meyers, known as Bull.
"This garage isn't that old. It should have held up better than this."
Joe didn't divert his focus long enough to respond to the remark but he already had his suspicions. California had long ago set into place stringent codes to prevent this very sort of disaster. Even old buildings and garages were supposed to be retrofitted to meet the new guidelines. It was the law. And still this kind of devastation could occur. Though it was only conjecture, he would bet his next paycheck that the garage had, in fact, been retrofitted. The problem would likely lie in the fact it had originally been built on a site requiring lots of fill.
He shook his head. The fill would create a base for construction, but that base would remain soft for many years, decades maybe. A part of his brain attempted the math but he couldn't quite recall when the garage had gone up. The intense shaking caused by the quake as it spread out from its epicenter had shifted the foundation, sending concrete pillars and T-bars off center and bringing down tons of concrete atop aluminum and steel vehicles that couldn't possibly support the weight.
"Got one over here!"
The shout came from the other side of the garage. While two crew members stayed to rescue the victim, the rest swarmed out like bees searching for a new place to form a hive. Car after car was visually searched. Inside, underneath. Any void created by fallen rubble could be protecting trapped victims. In a matter of minutes more than a dozen survivors were found and led from the unstable site. Others, less fortunate, would be extracted later.
Joe pointed upward to let those working with him know that he wanted to head up to level three. It wasn't necessary to discuss the issue. Their somber expressions said all there was to say. Moving up would add another layer of peril to the search. Though every man and woman on his crew was physically fit, the combined weight of two or three people could trigger another collapse in such a precarious environment.
But it was a chance they'd have to take.
Judging by the number of victims trapped on level two, there could be that many or more on three. With luck, there would be less. But Joe wouldn't stake anyone's life but his own on luck.
With that in mind, he turned back to his squad. "Let me take it from here." He looked at O'Shea. "You stand ready to bring down anyone I find."
"No way, Cap'n," she said. "I'm going with you."
As much as he'd like to recite all the reasons he felt compelled to do this alone, there was no time. He, better than anyone, knew how stubborn O'Shea could be when it came to her job. Joe heaved a sigh and climbed the last few feet to the next level, O'Shea right on his heels.
Thankfully there weren't as many cars up here as there had been on two. By the time they'd covered one side of the garage, Joe felt fairly confident that this level was clear. And that suddenly looked like the only good luck he would get this day.
He had only half a second's warning.
The screech of strained steel and concrete pierced the air a split second before the far side of level three started to fall.
Joe shouted the order and hoped everyone heard it over the collapsing tonnage. His frantic gestures to O'Shea left no question as to his command. She reluctantly retreated, as would the rest of his team on the level below, clambering and sliding down to the safety of the ground amid shattering concrete and flying debris.
By the time he reached the second level there was no place to go except over the side of the structure. He took a moment to ensure that every member of his squad had made it down to the sidewalk before lunging over the side railing himself.
He picked himself up from the ground and dusted off his backside, then winced at the ache in his right side and considered himself lucky that it wasn't worse.
"You okay, Cap'n?" SpikeSylvester Hilborn hovered around him like a mother bear. The guy was plenty broad enough to play the part.
"Yeah, I'm okay." He surveyed the group of pedestrians. "Anyone else unaccounted for?"
The Bull shook his head. "Got about a dozen reunions going on over there but no other claims of missing friends or family."
"Good." Joe was thankful for that much, but he couldn't walk away until he knew for certain. Every car that wasn't flattened under rubble had to be inspected. Now. "We'll have to go back in."
Spike nodded. "Crew's standing by. Structural engineers are here." He grimaced. "They're pretty pissed that you went in before they got here."
"I guess they'll just have to get over it." Joe headed toward the two guys in question and didn't bother trying to make nice. They wouldn't be surprised. His reputation usually preceded him. Those who knew him didn't call him the Iceman for nothing. When it came to his job, he always set emotion aside.
It took a full hour to survey the remaining levels. Not a single victim was found. The second level had been cleared before the last collapse, but the third level was questionable. Level four, thankfully, had been deserted. Joe's concern at this point was ensuring that no one on that level had survived and was trapped beneath rubble in a void they hadn't discovered. Sometimes equipment failed. What they needed were the dogs.
That there were no survivors on the first level was pretty much a given; anyone who'd had the misfortune of being in that area was likely dead. Still, they could bring in the dogs and search for remains. It wasn't completely impossible that someone had survived.
"Let's call in the canines and see what we can find." So far, his unit hadn't been asked to respond to any other scene.
"We'll have to wait our turn," Spike informed him.
"Apparently there was significant damage on the other side of town. A couple of buildings fell and a church. I heard on the radio that every trained canine in the area has been called in to sniff through the rubble."
Joe shook his head and huffed out a weary breath. Damn, he hated to hear that. He'd hoped, based on what he'd seen and heard en route, that the quake hadn't done that much damage. He should have known better. He'd lived through his share of rumbles.
"Hell," Spike went on, "they said it was so bad on Poppy Avenue that the church bells actually rang right before the church collapsed."
Courage Bay was not a large city, and Joe's thoughts immediately went to all the people he knew who lived and worked on that side of town.
"Tell 'em we need a dog over here as soon as one is freed up," he said somberly. "Meanwhile, I'm going back in there to see what I can find."
"Cap'n, I think maybe you'd better rethink that strategy," O'Shea said as she walked over. "One of the engineers said the whole backside of level three is down. I doubt there's anything you can do for anyone there now."
"O'Shea, I think I know my job," he said pointedly. She knew the drill. Once the interior of the garage was inspected as fully as possible, the surrounding area was to be rechecked and victims attended to. A command post had already been set up across the street. The EMTs on Joe's crew were taking care of victims.