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The smoke banked down like bolts of black velvet, heavy sheets curling and rolling and folding together. A man could lose perspective in such a cloud, the vapor so dense and oily that it carried a physical weight, like tar, hot and sticky and misted into the air. Through the plastic of his face mask, Lt. Mike McNamee could see a dirty orange glow in the haze, brighter when the smoke puffed one way on a searing updraft, then dimmer when the fog closed again. If he trusted his eyes, which he didn't, the flames might have been forty feet away, or sixty, or maybe only twenty. So he trusted his skin, believed in the warmth pushing through his turnout coat. He was down on all fours, crawling across a wood floor, staying low, ducking under the worst of the heat. Down there, in the coolest inches, he figured the temperature was only 125 degrees, maybe 150. He guessed the fire, burning at the back end of a warehouse storeroom eighty feet deep and half as wide, was about forty-five feet away.
"Lieutenant, you wanna open it up?"
The nozzle man, a lump in the dark barely an arm's reach away, shouted the words. Every man in a firefight had to shout, throw his voice through the mask on his face and the droningthunder of the flames. The sound was muffled, almost slurred to an unpracticed ear.
"Not yet," Mike hollered back. "Let's keep moving. Get up close where we can hit it directly."
There were three of them, creeping across the warehouse floor and dragging a hose two and a half inches in diameter loaded with almost four hundred pounds of water. The nozzle man in front and another firefighter in the rear flanked Mike, the ranking officer that night in 1981 on Engine 4 out of the Worcester Fire Department's Park Avenue station. Mike was young for a lieutenant, just a few months past his thirty-first birthday. With his shallow chin and thin-framed spectacles, he sometimes looked like an English professor, which is what he had wanted to be before he dropped out of college. He had a reputation as being mildly bookish anyway, a man who studied fire, the alchemy of oxygen and heat and fuel, and the choreographed chaos of fire suppression: how and when to attack and vent and retreat. But he also had the sturdy build of a fireman, a solid frame conditioned by years humping up smoky tenement stairs and clambering over flaming roofs with seventy pounds of gear on his back. In almost nine years since he'd joined the fire department in his hometown in the middle of Massachusetts, Mike had helped put out more than a thousand blazes, which wasn't an unusual number for a man working that job in that place in those years.
Worcester in the 1970s and early 1980s was a withered industrial city, a factory town abandoned by factory owners and factory workers. Below downtown, just beyond the interstate overpass, old warehouses stood hollow, their insides gutted except for the trash and scraps that could feed a renegade spark. The hills above the Blackstone Valley were lined with sagging wood-framed triple-deckers, tinder-dry and stacked dense as cordwood. The Main South neighborhood was a sprawling slum of deteriorating tenements and abandoned storefronts. And for most of the decade all of it was on fire, the whole city burning lot by lot and night by night. Frayed wires spit sparks onto carpets and curtains, corroded black pipes leaked gas into antiquated kitchens, drunks passed out with Marlboros between their arthritic fingers. Pyromaniacs, half-crazed or half-witted or both, set light to trash cans and gas station bathrooms and flophouse porches and dry stands of grass. What didn't burn by accident or for sport burned for cash. Arson was epidemic, landlords and investors charring the last scraps of profit from decrepit properties, a depressing number of which were worth more as heavily insured ruins than as cheaply rented apartments or vacant commercial space. Some shifts, it seemed all of Worcester might burn to the ground. In the worst years, an engine crew would routinely fight three fires in a single night, and five wasn't uncommon.
After a decade on the frontlines, a flaming warehouse wasn't a particularly formidable foe. Potentially dangerous, sure. But predictable, not exceptionally different from a hundred other skirmishes Mike had been through. He knew the best attack was in close. A two-and-a-half-inch line sprayed out roughly 250 gallons every minute, enough to wash the life out of most medium-size fires. But if the stream missed the flames, if it fell short and hit nothing but superheated air, all that liquid would atomize, instantly mushroom into steam, blow back and down in a scalding vapor. So he ordered his men, nearly blinded by the smoke and hobbled by the weight of their gear and the hose, to keep inching forward. Another fifteen feet, twenty at the most.
Mike was judging the distance to the flames not just by the heat but also by his fresh memory of the building. This was the second time that night Engine 4, along with three other engines, two ladder trucks, and the rescue squad—the normal complement sent to a working fire—had been dispatched to Jacques Street, a short block of squat brick warehouses and machine shops along the tracks of the Providence and Worcester Railroad. The first alarm for 82 Jacques Street came in just after dinner, when the men in the Park Avenue station were wiping the last drops of gravy from their mustaches and splashing their plates into a sink of sudsy water. Three tones sounded, abrupt and abrasive, electrified burps. Then the dispatcher's deadpan voice from the speaker bolted to the wall: "Engine 2, Engine 4, Engine 5, Engine 10, Ladder 4, Scope 3, Rescue 1, Car 4. Striking Box 1575 for a reported structure fire at 82 Jacques Street."
A dozen men working the third tour out of Park Avenue, four each on Aerial Scope 3 and Engines 4 and 10, were moving before the dispatcher started repeating the assignments, hustling into their turnout gear. Most of them pulled on long boots that rose to the middle of their thighs, just above where the bottom edge of their coats would fall. A few, including Mike, stepped through the legs of newfangled fire-resistant pants and into shorter boots. In less than twelve seconds, every man was on his designated truck. The officers took the seats on the passenger sides of the cabs, where they could yank the air-horn cords and toggle the sirens on and off. On the ride south along Park Avenue, each man except the driver slipped his arms through a fire-resistant coat hung on the back of his seat, the sleeves already laced through the straps of an air tank. When Mike's boots hit the pavement outside the warehouse three minutes after the first tone, all of his men were ready to square off against an inferno.
But there wasn't much of a fire left. When the first flames heated the air to 165 degrees or so, tiny metal plugs melted in the sprinkler heads plumbed through the building, opening the spigots and dropping a heavy shower on the fire. The only thing left for the firemen to do was shut off the main valve to the sprinkler system, soak a few embers, and then track down the owner of the building to tell him to replace his spent sprinkler heads and board up his doors and windows. A quick knockdown. Thirty minutes later, they were back at the station, scrubbing the dinner dishes.
If the fire had been accidental, then the sprinklers had saved the building and protected the men who came with their hoses and axes and ladders. If it had been arson, then it had been merely a setup fire, a prelude to a bigger, more devastating and dangerous blaze. With the sprinkler system disabled, the flames from a second torching could get a jump on the fire crews. In the unimpeded minutes before the fire department's arrival, two or three isolated ignition points could engulf the entire building.
The second alarm for 82 Jacques Street came in three hours after the first, shortly before ten o'clock. Dispatch announced the same unit assignments, and all twelve men at Park Avenue, plus eight more from the Webster Square station and ten out of Central Street, quick-stepped back into their gear and onto their trucks. When Mike hit the pavement the second time, black smoke billowed through the roof and blown-out windows. The second floor was fully involved, a tangle of orange and yellow. A second alarm was struck. Headquarters dispatched another dozen men on two more engines and a third ladder company.
The driver on Engine 4 stayed with the truck, working the controls that regulate the water coming in from the hydrants and pump it out through the hoses. Mike and two of his men grabbed a coil of hose from the bed above the back bumper and lugged it toward a street level door, up a staircase, and into a hallway. From the smoke and the sound, they knew the flames were raging somewhere behind a steel fire door that had rolled shut. Much the way the sprinkler heads had been activated by heat, the fire door had automatically closed when the heat melted a pin that held it open, the idea being to contain the fire to one room.
Mike and his men pulled their plastic masks over their faces, cranked open their air tanks, and rolled back the door. Then they dropped to their knees, ducking below air that might have been 300 degrees at waist height and twice that at head height. At the ceiling, twelve feet above, the temperature was nearly 1,500 degrees, almost as hot as a crematorium. With the hose charged—filled with water sent up by the engine's pump—the three of them crawled into the black folds of smoke. When the last man cleared the fire door, it rolled closed behind him, propped open only a couple of inches by the trailing hose.
They were in forty feet, halfway across the storeroom. "Now?" the nozzle man hollered.
"A little closer," Mike yelled back again. Another ten feet, he thought to himself. Ten more seconds, then we'll hit it.
He shuffled his left knee forward, then his right, keeping one hand on the hose and another on his nozzle man. He moved his left knee again, then stopped short when he saw it: a flicker through the smoke, near the ceiling. Then another, a shimmer that brightened and blossomed into a deep yellow glow, the color of overripe lemons. A bad color signaling a very bad thing, a phenomenon Mike had read and heard about, and even witnessed from a distance. But he'd never been up close, directly in its path, had hoped he never would be. The sound came next, a low rumble through the hiss and snap of the fire, like thunder tumbling across a prairie horizon.
One of his men, maybe both of his men, shouted something, but the words were wallowed up by the growling near the ceiling. Mike reached for his nozzle man. His hand touched nothing but smoke. He wheeled on one knee, flailing his arm behind him for his other man. Nothing. Above him, the rumble swelled and quickened, a trembling whoosh. The storeroom, a box of thick brick walls closed in by a bulky steel door, had trapped too much heat inside. The gases lingering near the ceiling had reached their ignition temperature, the point at which each tiny particle of smoke and wisp of oxygen turned to fire. Mike, groping at smoke in the dark, realized he was alone in a room about to explode. "Oh, fuck," he muttered.
Then he saw it happen. It started on the back wall, above the fire he'd been inching toward, an orange ball expanding, erupting, blowing across the ceiling. It spread to the walls on either side, covered the width of the room, and spun forward, flames biting into the smoke like a thresher into wheat, spears of fire curling and weaving a few feet above Mike's head. It moved as fast as a breaking wave, washing across the length of the store-room to the wall blocked off by the door, then plunged to the floor, covering all that ground in three seconds, maybe two.
Mike dropped flat on his back as the flames passed over him, as much by training—always stay low, beneath the heat—as instinct. A man could survive a rollover, but it was one of the most terrible phenomena he would ever witness. The only thing worse would have been a flashover. The physics were similar, gases superheating until they exploded. But where a rollover happened near the ceiling, a flashover happened everywhere at once, every scrap of cloth and stick of furniture and atom of hydrogen instantly exploding into flame. A man on the edge of a room about to flash could take maybe two giant, panicked strides out; a man inside that room was going to die.
In the dark, Mike slid his hands to the end of the hose, found the nozzle, and yanked the lever back. Water tore out like cannon fire, jerking the line, forcing it one way, then another, as if the hose was alive, a serpent fighting to get loose. Mike pinned a length of it beneath his back and clamped the rest between his left arm and rib cage, wrestling until he had the nozzle aimed straight up at the ceiling. For the next fifteen seconds—or it could have been five or fifty, because a man can lose track of time when he's trying not to die—Mike washed the air above him, scattering hundreds of gallons of water into the void. But he wasn't getting wet. None of the water was splashing back down. He knew it was turning to steam, a mist that would eventually settle on him like a searing fog. But 212 degrees of steam was better than 1,500 degrees of fire.
For an instant, the flames receded. The bright orange disappeared in a shroud of black smoke, the air finally cooled enough not to burn. Mike had punctured the fire's flanks, sent it into a temporary retreat, the way an army would fall back to regroup. Except a fire regrouped in only seconds, not hours or days. In one quick motion, Mike slammed the nozzle shut, twisted onto his knees, and started crawling, his shins banging off the floor, his hands slapping along the hose line. He covered forty feet like a sprinter, moving so fast in the dark he smashed his head into the fire door just to the left of the opening where the hose slipped out. He could hear his nozzle man screaming. "Where's Mike? Where the fuck is Mike?" Then he saw two pairs of gloved hands pulling at the fire door, wrenching it open just enough for the lieutenant to scramble into the hallway. It rolled shut behind him.
Mike slumped against a wall. His two men were sitting on the floor, wide-eyed, panting. They hadn't meant to leave him alone—firefighters, good ones, never leave a man alone in a fire, and Mike knew these were good men. They had thought he was bailing out with them. That's what they'd been yelling about, the words Mike couldn't hear over the rumbling of the rollover. ?Mike stared at them, his breath coming in great, labored gulps. Finally, he said, "Holy fuck." He stared some more and said it again, hoarse, almost a whisper: "Fuck."
From behind the door, he could hear another roar, the sound of the room exploding. If he'd been inside, Mike knew, he'd be dead. He considered that, but only for an instant. "Sometimes you have to bring an extra pair of shorts to work," he liked to say. And that was okay. Every fireman, unless he was a fool, sometimes got scared. But they never expected to die. Because, truth be told, they hardly ever did.
Copyright © 2002 by Sean Flynn