The Best of Intentions
copyright 2012, Enfleurage
Chapter 4: Heading In
It was an unwritten law, a universal law acknowledged by fireman everywhere that if a television show was an hour long, somewhere around forty-five minutes into the show was when the tones would sound. Same thing for a movie. The movie could be ninety minutes, could be two hours, either way, fifteen to twenty minutes before it ended and almost always during the incredibly tense scenes leading up to the climatic resolution of the plot, they'd get called out.
He was working on a corollary to this law, though he hadn't yet proposed it to the guys. Inevitably, when the television show was truly exciting and they had no idea how the heroes would escape whatever dire situation they faced, the call would be an alarm panel activation or a false alarm or something else equally lame and pointless. He was going to call it the Kelly Inverse Proportions Corollary, which should set Gage off for no other reason than it would bug him that there was a universal law named after Chester B. Kelly.
This one was definitely not a false alarm, but since he hadn't quite figured out the relationship between movies that he hadn't particularly wanted to watch in the first place but got outvoted on and their resulting dispatch, he'd have to categorize this as requiring more research.
He rested his gloved hand on the metal banister and felt the vibrations of the slatted metal stair tread jolt up through his boots.
It was like being inside a concrete fort. He'd noticed the old-fashioned yellow and black 'Fallout Shelter' metal placard affixed to the front of the building, just to the left of the entrance. One of the Pac Tel guys hanging around by the Chief had said, 'The only thing left after a nuclear explosion will be cockroaches and central offices,' and the other Pac Tel guys had laughed, but not as if it was funny, more like it was an old, inside joke.
Cap had gone up the metal staircase first, testing the weight of each step, the beam from his handheld flashlight a jerky thing bouncing almost erratically through the smoke-filled darkness. If it held for Cap, and there was no reason it shouldn't hold, then it would be fine for Marco and for him, each a little lighter than the prior man.
The nicer stairs, the ones made from poured concrete embedded with nonslip treads, the ones that would survive nuclear fallout if the Pac Tel guy was right, were at the front of the building. Of course that was also where the fire was most heavily concentrated which was why they were at the back of the building, in the northwest corner, climbing up metal stairs that shook under his relatively light body weight. The fire hadn't reached the third floor back here, not yet anyway, but the guys from 36s had said the cable vault in the basement was something out of Dante's circles of hell and the offices on the first floor were pretty well involved too.
He kept his right hand on the banister, groping ahead with his boot toe for the next step, shifting his weight carefully onto his right foot before taking his left foot off the previous step. And then there were no more steps, and he used his hand on the banister as guide, navigating around the far edge of the intermediate landing, shuffling his boots against the bumpy metal flooring until the toes of his left boot collided against the lip of the landing and pushed into the small gap between it and the first step to the next set of stairs.
He waited there, staring up into the dense blackness, only some of which was smoke, actively listening to pick out what he could hear above the hiss of his own breaths inside the mask. A heavy clang that he both heard and felt echoing under his feet meant that Marco was still climbing the stairs from the landing to the fourth floor. Cap had said one man at a time, on each set of stairs, just in case.
"You know, Cap. Just for future reference, let's see if we can do these Search and Rescue things during daylight hours in the future, okay?"
Cap was probably only about fifteen feet above him but his voice sounded a lot farther away.
"I'll see what I can arrange."
There was another vibration under his feet from Marco a few feet ahead of him, and then he heard something new. It sounded a little like the whale sounds he'd heard piped through a talk at the Aquarium, a kind of deep, groaning wail, which, when accompanied with the slight sway of the metal landing under his feet….
"Let's get off these stairs, guys," Cap called from above.
He shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, as the landing seemed to gently shift. It was a very slight movement, no worse than the rocking of a boat in quiet waters but considering the amount of steel and concrete that was supposed to be holding it up… Actually, he didn't really want to think about the steel and the concrete, or the fact that this staircase probably ran all the way up to the roof because it started in the basement, the same place the fire had started.
"Stairs are getting hotter, Cap," he said. So was the landing, and the railing.
"All right, Lopez is just about up…"
Chet heard a clang and then a grunt from his Captain.
"He's up. Let's make it quick, Kelly. Floor up here is nice and solid."
It would have been handy to use the round metal banister as a grip to pull himself up instead of just as a guide but it was too hot to hold more than just loosely, even with his glove. He tapped the stairs ahead of him with the short pike pole like a blind man's cane - since he was carrying it, might as well get some use of it – and scrambled up the stairs as quickly as possible. Near the top, he couldn't see them but he could make out the sounds of Cap and Marco breathing through their masks and then their hands wrapped around his upper arms and pulled him on to the fourth floor.
Cap stood and walked towards the windows to check in with the IC. Thank God, this was one of the floors that had windows, or at least this side did. The street lights and the light truck outside were putting out enough lumens that though it would never be mistaken for daylight, the guys outside could see what they were doing. Some of that light poured through the dirty narrow windows here, just enough to pick out Cap's outline in hazy gray light, but it was better than the constant darkness they'd been operating in since they'd entered the building.
The third floor had been an equipment floor, walls solid concrete unbroken by a single window, and filled floor to two-story high ceiling with tall and endlessly long steel racks. Each rack was overflowing with sheathed copper wire coming up in massive cable bundles from the basement, and then stripped out individually so that each wire connected to one tiny piece of equipment on one of the rack shelves and then connected to another piece of copper wire that was going somewhere else in the building. Cross-connections, Marco had called it.
It had been a bitch to search in the dark, up and down the aisles, using flashlight beams to pick out the hazards as the thick, heavy smoke continued to pour up the internal building cable conduits from the fire in the basement and lower levels. He'd walked into at least one of the stepladders on wheels, presumably used to access shelves higher on the rack but the hand lights had kept him from tripping over any of the wrapped bundles of copper wire running along the base of the tall racks.
"Battalion 14, this is HT 51." Cap paused and waited for the Chief's acknowledgment. "The third floor is clear. We are beginning search of the fourth floor. Be advised that the northwest staircase is now unstable and unsafe for egress." He took his thumb off the HT. "Lopez, Kelly, check the standpipe."
It had been a little weird not dragging a charged line or carrying a hose pack into the fire, but so far the wet standpipe system seemed to be fully operational. They made their way into the hallway, using their flashlights to pick their way to the glass fronted hose cabinet. Chet kept his light on task as Marco opened the hose cabinet, tugged out the one-inch hose and nozzle, and opened the valve to check water flow.
It was designed for building tenants, not firefighters, so it wasn't the strongest flow rate, but it was pressurized and better than anything that they'd have gotten from a hose wrapped around four unusually tall flights of stairs. And his shoulders appreciated not having to haul the hose.
Cap joined them in the hall, backlit by the light truck outside just enough that Chet could make out the 100-ft. of rope Cap wore draped over his turnout coat.
"Okay, first thing's first: there's another staircase in the southwest corner, same construction as the one we just came up and possibly the same problems, so we'll check it out when we search that area. We've got a telephone company switch taking up the entire south-side of this building," he used the axe in his right hand, blade turned down, to point in the direction away from where they'd entered. "More equipment rooms across the east and west sides and office space on the north. We'll start there. Lopez, give Kelly the halligan; you've got the line."