The Best of Intentions
copyright 2012, Enfleurage
Chapter 7: Vigil
"HT 51, what is your status?"
It was the silence that ate at him. Ironic considering the nicknames he'd been given, that he'd earned over the years.
The initial blast had rocked the building and blown out all the windows on the fifth floor, the secondary blast, less than a second later, had done the same to the fourth floor. The shock wave had rolled across the back parking lot, dropping firefighters on their asses and rattling Snorkel 127 hard enough that for a moment he thought it might topple, like Snorkel 3 had in 1970, killing one firefighter and seriously injuring two others. This Snorkel listed briefly and then settled but the blast had done its damage, jarring the Stokes basket from its unsecured resting spot across the bucket's railing.
Stoker was far enough away that he'd only fallen back against Engine 51's panel, barely stunned but immediately aware of exactly what had happened and what it meant for his crew.
They'd known that if the fuel for the back-up generator on the fifth floor was exposed to the heat of the fire long enough, and enough pressure built up in the fuel tank, the outcome was predictable, inevitable even. Snorkel 127, and then Truck 74, had been pouring water into the fifth floor from the south side of the building, attempting to cool the tank and the generator. But the combined efforts of the deluge, the foam unit and all other companies inside and out had failed to contain the fire in the basement cable vault and lower floors; the heat had continued to build and rise despite all efforts to control it.
They were lucky that it was a smaller generator, relatively speaking. He'd heard from 43's Captain who'd heard from the Pac Tel guys that some of the larger central offices had turbine engines the size of a 747 jet engine as part of their power plant. That and a long string of cabinet-sized batteries that served to act as an uninterrupted power supply during the time between the failure of the power grid and that generator being fully up and running. Telephone company central offices were built to survive days, even weeks, of a major power outage without anyone losing phone service.
There was more and more time now between the IC's calls to his missing men, a silent acknowledgement that he wasn't going to get an answer. Those answers would come only when someone went in after them.
The linemen from Engine 19 that were working the hoses off his Engine were still sending occasional sympathetic glances in his direction. At least he was in a place where he could see what was going on, unlike his counterpart on Engine 19 whose Engine was part of the relay from the hydrant on W. Lomita halfway to S. Figuerosa. It would be unfathomably worse to be that far away from his Engine crew, to hear the explosion and try to fight the rising alarm, the panic, try to figure out what had happened with only the chaotic communications across the HT channels to answer his fear.
"HT 51, Snorkel 127. Do you copy?"
He'd watched crews from 127s, 43s, and 38s converge on the Snorkel after the blast, watched them use ladders and ropes to bring both the Stokes and Carl Ostrander to the ground safely.
Now, he watched Gage and about five or six other firefighters carry Captain Wozniak's Stokes to the triage area, setting it down near where Roy DeSoto was treating Ostrander. For some reason, Gage and DeSoto were working the end closest to Engine 51 instead of the end nearest their Squad and he didn't want to dwell on why that made him feel better.
They'd gone from three paramedics on scene to five: 43's DeAngelo and Shafer had climbed out of the back of a Mayfair just in time to get knocked off their feet. Now they were working next to 22's Ferrara, down by Squad 51: DeAngelo taking care of van der Heijden, Ferrara taking care of Kelleher, and Shafer moving through the triage area, helping out as needed and taking care of the occasional mostly non- serious injuries from any firefighter who'd done something stupid, like take off his mask.
"Snorkel 127, Battalion 14. Have you made contact with 51's team inside?"
Cap, Chet and Marco had had full air bottles and protective gear when they'd gone inside. He didn't like to think about what they might be breathing now. Assuming they still were.
The smoldering copper cables alone were producing a mix of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, hydrogen chloride, heavy metals and ash, among other things. The real fuel was the PVC insulation on those cables, which when burned released the chloride from the PVC and turned it into chlorine, and that burned your eyes and did a number on your ability to breathe.
"Battalion 14, Snorkel 127. Negative, Chief; no response. We are completing hydraulics check and expect to be operational in five."
From where he stood vigil, he could hear the near constant hum of Gage's voice as he bent over the battered Stokes, talking to Wozniak, talking to a firefighter from 14s - and where he'd come from, Stoker had no idea – who'd been shanghaied into helping.
"Leave it alone, Cap, that collar's on for a reason," Gage said, gently batting down Wozniak's befuddled grab at the cervical collar. "Now, McIntyre, listen up. Shafer and I are gonna roll the Cap, and I'm gonna check him out, real quick, check his back, and then you're gonna get that backboard in when I tell you. You got it?"
Gage kept up the patter, his voice cheerful and reassuring even as his jaw tightened and his eyes went flat while running his right hand down Wozniak's spine.
"Okay, McIntyre, now slide that in there right now. Yup, just like that, and…."
Gage and Shafer rolled Wozniak smoothly onto the backboard, grimacing as 22's Captain yelped.
"Hang in there, Cap." Gage switched to the biophone. "Rampart, this is Squad 51…"
Stoker turned his attention back to the building.
It would be a quick rescue, grab them and get out. Truck 86 was already in a supporting position; they had knocked down the flames in that area immediately following the explosion and had been keeping it wet with fog since.
He swallowed, and if he'd believed in some kind of higher power, this would have been the time he'd have said a prayer. Instead, as Snorkel 127's boom began rising smoothly into the night, inside his head he simply said 'please.'
He'd already calculated that it would take two excruciatingly slow trips. As expected, 127s was sending two men in to search, and one to man the bucket; it would be a tight fit with four, there was no way that bucket would carry six men.
It probably took forty-five seconds for the bucket to reach the window; it felt like four or five minutes. Two figures clamored out of it and disappeared into the smoke-filled fourth floor. And then the real waiting began.
He checked the gauges: the pressure on the lines was unchanged. He looked in the direction of Engine 19's guys, and then glanced over to the triage area. He watched Roy carefully wrap and secure Ostrander's left elbow for almost an entire minute before looking back at the building.
127's guy was standing in the bucket, peering toward the window, waiting.
He watched Gage start an IV on Captain Wozniak before glancing back to the window and this time, his tired, straining eyes made out shapes at the window, two bulky forms carrying a third bulky form. They passed him to the guy in the bucket, and then turned around and went back into the building.
He took a shaky breath, startled to realize he'd held it since the three figures had appeared at the window.
He shifted his attention to Truck 86 who'd adjusted the direction of their fog pattern, presumably able to see what he could not inside the fourth floor. Truck 43, just east of the Snorkel, had suppressed most of the fire on that side of the fourth floor. Five was still burning and if he strained he could see the IC pointing at it and discussing something with a man in a Captain's helmet, too far away to identify.
When he looked back at the building, a figure appeared in the window, followed by another, and between them they held another limp form. They handed him off to the man in the bucket and as the bucket started to descend, they went back in to find the last missing man.
It took longer than forever and it took about five minutes. By the time the last unnervingly still member of 51's search team was being carried down in the bucket with all three men from 127s, Stoker was jittery, as if he'd been mainlining caffeine for a month. It felt like swimming the length of a pool underwater, at the very bottom, eyes open and ears slightly popping and then breaking through the surface and being stunned at the noise.
He winced as an attendant slammed the back of a Mayfair. Ferrara was riding in with Kelleher and van der Heijden, the two most seriously injured that were ready to be transported. Wozniak was probably in worse shape than van der Heijden but he was nowhere near stabilized and Gage was chewing his lip as he talked to Rampart on the biophone.
They're not dead, he kept reminding himself, as first Chet and then Marco were laid gently on formerly pristine blankets. If they were dead, surely someone would have started some type of resuscitation attempt the minute they were on the ground. They wouldn't have carried truly lifeless bodies to the triage area, would they?
SCBA tanks were removed first and then shears appeared and cut off turnouts that were both charred and soaking wet. The oxygen masks were non-rebreathers, not bag valve, so apparently they were breathing on their own. Shafer grabbed for the BP cuff and wrapped it around Marco's arm as DeAngelo pressed his fingers against Chet's carotid. They looked like a well-oiled team. They looked like Gage and DeSoto.
"Over here," Roy's voice called out sharply and the men carrying the limp body of his Captain veered in that direction.
"You okay, son?"
At first Stoker thought he'd imagined the voice, and for one incredibly unnerving second, he even thought it was his father's voice. Then a hand settled on his right shoulder and startled, he whirled.
The man was older than he was, probably mid-40's, and wore a Captain's helmet with a large 19 on its front.
"Yeah," he managed to get out through a dry mouth. "I'm…"
The words were there, they were familiar, but his tongue wouldn't form the syllables, as if even his own tongue didn't believe he was okay.
"… I don't know," he finally said. "That's my crew and I don't know if they're …"
His traitorous mouth failed him again and his traitorous mind continued to substitute words other than 'okay,' words that echoed and paralyzed him.
19's Captain nodded solemnly and then he realized with sudden horror that those were Engine 19's guys at the end of the charged lines from his Engine and he was supposed to be making sure that they had what they needed. Frantically he turned and looked at the gauges and then out at the firemen. They were fine, but he might not have even realized that they weren't until it was too late. He'd betrayed their trust; he'd failed them.
"I can't stand you down," the Captain said with obvious regret. "We just don't have the manpower. But I can relieve you for a bit. Let you go take care of your guys while I take care of mine." His mouth twitched into something that was almost a smile. "Plus I get to remember how much fun it was to be an Engineer."
He fought down a surge of emotion that was wild and barely under his control - whatever it was would be embarrassing at best –and, lips pressed tightly together, he nodded in gratitude.
"Thanks, Cap," he said, amazed that his voice only slightly wobbled.
He strode quickly toward the edge of triage area and made eye contact with Gage who looked puzzled. Gage leaned hard to his right, peered around Stoker and apparently put the pieces together.
"Roy's just finishing up with Ostrander; he'll probably go out in the next transport. Can you get Cap started? Basic vitals check, let us know if there's something we need to take care of right away?"
He swallowed and his nerves must have shown on his face because Gage immediately said, "Roy'll be there in a minute, Mike. Just get his coat off and get him on some O2. See if that perks him up, okay?"
It was men from Engine 43 who'd carried Hank Stanley over to where Roy had directed, between where Gage was working on Wozniak and where Roy was working on Ostrander.
Okay, coat off, get him on O2. I can do that.
From the looks on their faces, the guys doing the carrying were waiting for some direction.
"Get his legs down, we're going to have him flat on his back in sec. Lean him into me for now," he said as he dropped into a crouch, straddling Stanley's legs. "Then help me get his gear off."
A few seconds later he had an armful of unconscious company officer, Stanley's facemask up against his left shoulder and he could feel the heat rising off the charred turnout through the protection of his own coat.
"Get his tank off," he said.
That was the easy part. The harness was designed to swap out tanks and Stoker immediately felt a reduction in weight pressed against him. Now for the rest.
"Cut 'em," Roy said from the other side of Ostrander. "Just cut the straps and then cut his coat off. Don't bother trying to get it off the regular way." He tossed a set of shears that landed flat on the blanket a few inches from where Stoker was kneeling. "I'll be there in a sec."
A couple quick snips by one of the guys from 43s and then the other removed the tank frame and harness.
"Helmet next. Wait, loosen his chip strap."
Cap always wore that tightly fastened, he never lost his helmet, and the association between the two appeared to be something that no one was able to get through Gage's head.
"Careful with his head and neck," Roy said.
Stoker spread his right hand over the back of Stanley's neck, gripping the base of his skull and his neck to keep them in position. "Go ahead."
The helmet was easy, as was the facemask. Now he had his Captain's head slumped against his shoulder and rapid, shallow breaths hitting the side of his neck. He nodded a go ahead to the shears guy who ran them up the right sleeve of Cap's coat, over the right shoulder, across the back and then stopped.
"Left shoulder's out."
"Yeah, I see that now."
He almost added 'be careful' or something but he bit his tongue.
The guy continued cutting, slowly, carefully, around a left shoulder that was not the right shape or position. Mike's gaze followed the shears down the left sleeve to a ferociously swollen wrist, to several gloved fingers that were misshapen and crooked, obviously broken.
Shears guy peeled away the back of Cap's coat and then squatted in position, ready to hold c-spine as they shifted Stanley until he was flat on the ground. The other guy from 43s dragged an oxygen setup to right exactly where Mike needed it.
This was familiar turf. He'd helped Gage and DeSoto dozens of times, probably more than dozens of times. He set the oxygen mask in place, pulled his gloves off and then moved on to taking vitals. He never saw or heard the men from Engine 43 vanish back into the fray; it was as if the triage area was a scene unto itself.
"How's he doing, Mike?" Gage called from behind him.
Stoker finished multiplying in his head.
"Pulse 116, respirations 24 and shallow. Pale, comatose. I'm not sure if he's diaphoretic or just wet; he feels cold even though his coat was pretty hot. Possible dislocated left shoulder, fractured left wrist and a couple of fingers on his left hand."
"You're doing fine," Roy said, startling him with his nearness as he knelt across from him and wrapped a BP cuff around Cap's upper arm. "What else do you see?" He puffed the cuff up and then bent down with his stethoscope to listen.
Mike ran his gaze and then careful hands over each limb.
"Left knee's swollen."
Cap twitched underneath his hands as they ran across his ribs.
"Ribs on the left are tender. Left collarbone is swollen, possibly broken. Damn, he hit something hard."
"Or something hit him. He's out pretty deep," Roy said as he straightened, frowning. "BP's 90 over 66," he said, eyes searching up and down his patient. "See if you can find where he's bleeding."
There'd been a little blood on the broken fingers but nothing major. He started from the bottom and worked his way up again, searching with his eyes, testing with his fingers.
"That's it, Cap, give me a good cough," Roy coaxed, stethoscope tucked inside Stanley's shirt. "Respirations are fast but if he ate any smoke, it's not bothering him much."
Stoker straightened and raised blood-covered fingertips.
"Laceration and swelling, base of the skull on the right," he said, trying to suppress the flutter in his stomach at the thought of a head injury. "And there's blood in his ear."
DeSoto moved rapidly, fingers probing the back of Cap's head.
"Hank, open your eyes," Roy demanded.
He pulled the pen light from his pocket and checked both ear canals and then lifted both eyelids. Mike wiped his fingertips on his own uniform pants.
"That's not it," Roy muttered and then looked up at Stoker. "Pupils are sluggish, unequal; probably a concussion. I think the bleeding in his ear is coming from the eardrum, which probably ruptured. It happens with blast injuries. Hand me some gauze."
He grabbed more gauze than was necessary and passed a stack of 4x4s to DeSoto.
"What about Chet and Marco?"
Roy squinted at a piece of bloody gauze and sighed in what sounded like relief. "All right, it's just blood." He looked at Stoker. "Chet's conscious, Marco's semi-conscious. From what I heard Shafer and DeAngelo saying, it sounded like blast injuries on both, blunt trauma, nothing penetrating, some fractures. First degree burns on their legs and Marco might have some crackling in his lungs." He frowned as he looked down at his patient. "Help me roll him, I need to check his back."
He held c-spine and they rolled him on Roy's count.
"No deformities, no swelling, everything feels normal," Roy said. "Damn it, Cap; where are you bleeding?"
A set of shears from Roy's belt easily sliced Cap's uniform and under shirts, exposing a couple of large contusions that were going to probably be horrific looking bruises. There was no external bleeding that either of them could find. They rolled him back and Roy gave a soft sigh as he palpitated the contusions on the chest and abdomen.
"Mike, get me the biophone, EKG monitor and drug box."
Stoker scrambled to his feet and turned to Gage's side of the treatment area and suddenly he could hear other voices calling, traffic on the HT frequencies and the roar of the fire again.
"Hey, Mike, when you get a chance, I could use some help," Gage said as soon as he caught sight of Stoker.
"Sure thing, Johnny," he said, and his voice sounded a lot calmer than his racing heart. "You done with the biophone?"
He delivered everything Roy had asked for and then returned to Gage's side.
"What do you need?"
Head immobilized in the c-collar, only Wozniak's eyes were able to shift towards Stoker. His usually ruddy face was blotchier than normal and his sandy hair stood up in spiky clumps that gave him an oddly punk look for a Fire Captain in his mid-40s.
"How are my guys doing?" he said, voice scratchy, eyes anxious.
Stoker looked at Gage. He was willing to bet that this wasn't the first time the question had been asked and he didn't honestly know the conditions of all of 22's men. He had seen Carl Ostrander and he didn't look too bad.
"How about I check and see if Ostrander can come over and fill you in, Cap?"
Gage gave him a quick, approving nod and said, "Good idea. Help me get him secured to the backboard for transport and then go get Ostrander."
That was something definitely easier done by two guys and he wondered where the shanghaied guy from 14s had gone; probably back to where he was supposed to be in the first place. Gage's reassuring patter, explaining exactly what he was doing while he was doing it, with a refrain of 'don't worry, you're doing okay, you're doing fine,' was starting to soak into his own brain. By the time they were done, and he stepped towards Ostrander, he felt as if the band that had tightened around his chest was starting to loosen.
"Hal," Roy's voice called, "he's going first, right away."
Stoker turned. In the time, he'd been helping Gage, Roy had hung two bags of saline from the oxygen cart, established the IVs and had intubated Stanley. Stoker felt the band start to tighten again, just a little, as he took a hesitant step back towards Roy and Captain Stanley, watching the Mayfair attendants drag the cot through the triage area.
"Mike," Roy paused in front of him, and his voice gentled. "The intubation's precautionary, but his BP is not good. We need to get some fluids in him as quickly as possible so I need you to hand pump those bags while I talk to Johnny for a sec."
He nodded, grateful for something he could do, and knelt next to his captain.
He reached down and touched a blanket covered shoulder, pale and cold despite the heat still pouring from the burning building and then made the mistake of finally looking directly at Stanley's face. It was ashen, his features slack, and everything hit him, all at once.
He swallowed hard and tried not to react, tried not to notice how his own breathing had changed, how his hands shook as he pressed the bags of saline.
"You probably heard," he said, voice wavering a little, "but in case you didn't, you got the guys from 22s out of the building safely. Chet and Marco are out and safe too. They're a little banged up, but no worse than you are. I know you're going to deconstruct this later, but I don't think there was anything more you, or anyone, could have done to get everyone out of the building faster. No one knew that fuel tank was going to blow when it did."
He heard Gage say, "Yeah, okay," and then Roy was back.
He helped Roy and the Mayfair attendants lift Captain Stanley onto the cot and trailed after them, weighted down with Squad 51's biophone, EKG monitor, defibrillator and drug box. Behind him he could hear Gage shouting directions to Squad 43's paramedics.
"Brackett says Cap'n Stanley is transport immediately. Cap'n Wozniak," Johnny said, pointing, "and Marco go next, so I can take the Cap or take 'em both. Chet and Carl go when the next ambulance is on site. You guys work it out but we need one of you to stay and the IC wants us all back as soon as Rampart releases us and we find a ride back."
"You've been taking care of Kelly," Shafer said to his partner at the exact same time DeAngelo said, "I'll take Chet in."
Hal, George and Roy loaded Cap into the back of the Mayfair. As Stoker handed Roy the drug box, Gage jogged up.
"Roy, you sure you're okay with him on your own?"
Roy looked up from where he hovered over Cap and his compressed lips and the way his eyes didn't seem to want to meet theirs said 'no, he sure wasn't.'
"I'm not on my own," he said in a flat tone. "Hal's with me. Besides, Captain Wozniak may have a spinal cord injury; you know you need to take care of him."
Gage didn't immediately reply.
"Johnny," Roy said quietly, insistently. "We need to go now."
Gage nodded and pushed the back door shut, his face blank of all expression as he did so. He smacked it twice and then turned away, motioning sharply to the driver of the Mayfair that had just pulled up.
"These two go next."
Stoker stood there in the midst of organized chaos contributing absolutely nothing, as Gage and one of the attendants loaded Wozniak and Shafer and the other attendant loaded Marco.
They were loaded and pulling out before he remembered that Wozniak wanted to know how his men were doing and he was supposed to have brought Ostrander over to reassure him.
He wanted to go talk to Chet, see how he was doing. He watched DeAngelo talking to Chet and casually rechecking vitals. Shafer tugged the blanket a little higher on Ostrander and it looked as if both guys were in good hands.
Work now. Feel later.
Engine 19's Captain had been a huge help to step in but they were down two entire Engine crews now. 19's Captain needed to get back to his job, so he needed to go back and do his.
He leaned down in the detritus of plastic and paper wrappers, cut-off turnout coats and discarded gauze, picked up the striped helmet, then made his way through the triage area towards his Engine. She was the only part of his crew that was still fighting the fire.