Fire Down Below
The photo accompanying this story was taken as we were leaving the scene of what we thought was going to be a "routine" fire. I was looking at the house that had nearly cost two firefighters their lives. To be sure, it took years off of mine.
I don't think of myself as a superstitious person but as I was getting ready for work the morning of Friday, the 13th of July 2001 I had a moment of uneasiness. It passed in a flash but later in the day I recalled that I had actually "felt" that this wasn't going to be just another day at work. Until the day played out as one of the most frightening of my 19 year career I didn't give it another thought.
Midsummer in Las Vegas is a real treat. That is if you are a mad dog or an Englishman. An ambient temperature of 112º, 60 pounds of gear, and a working fire make Hell seem like Lake Tahoe in May. The mid afternoon alarm wasn't particularly alarming except for the fact that it was 112º. I don't know about anywhere else but in Vegas a "smoke investigation" is one notch above an "odor investigation." 99.9% of the time it is a Bar-B-Q, a mist system, a dust devil or a "concerned citizen" on a cell phone reporting a diesel startup. 99.9% bullshit. That means that one in a thousand is... not... bullshit. I was feeling the heat.
There was even a little lighthearted conversation about it en route to the call. My Captain, Ray Bogle an experienced firefighter and company officer made the comment, "Really, how often do these turn out to be anything?" I agreed, not many. But the few that I've been on included Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church… burned to the ground. A unique spa/motel called Spring Fever… burned to the ground. And I've heard that the first call from the MGM Grand came in as a smoke investigation… 83 fatalities in the second deadliest hotel fire in U.S.history. But, of course those are one in a thousand.
As we casually rolled toward no big deal a radio update caused ears to prick. "Truck 9, be advised, P.R.called back and reports that there is smoke coming from the chimney." In January, even in Las Vegas it gets plenty cold enough to warrant a fire in the place on occasion so that update really wouldn't mean much - in January. But in July... The kid in my usual partner's seat was 24-year-old Craig Cooper a three-year rookie. I made a move for my helmet and mask indicating that it was showtime. This was going to be that one in a thousand. Thirty seconds later we were in front of the house.
It took no scrutiny to ascertain that we had a working fire in progress. Dirty brown smoke curled from the chimney and the eves of the single story slab home. Ray got the full dispatch rolling while Craig and I stepped off runnin' and gunnin'. As we grabbed hose and tools, Captain Bogle barked,
" I want a running blower at the door before anyone goes in." It gets a little iffy when there's no one around to tell you how long it's been burning. A flashover is a very real possibility and although rare, a true backdraft on entry, could cause major casualties. While Barry Stevens, our ship-in Engineer did his cab work and handled the blower assignment, Craig pulled the line and I grabbed a couple of pike poles, a Haligan and an axe. Ray made a quick recon loop around the house, knocked out the utilities, made sure we had a rear egress and met us back at the front door.
We were set. Hose and anchor to the door, flaked out charged and bled, a huge blower fired up and moving air, lots of air, positioned at the front door, all tools handy and two coiled firefighters ready for action. (Or so we thought)
It was the moment of truth. We anticipated a forceable entry but all it took was a twist of the knob and the door swung open into that same murky brown smoke. Not the churning black, ultra dense, ten degrees cooler than fire kind of smoke, but a weird dirty looking crap that still reduced your sight to near blindness. No blast of fire, no rolling crest of orange. Just a patient looking wall of thick mud-colored smoke. "Let's kick some ass," I said. We stepped into the entryway and began our advance.
I am a fanatic about staying low in a fire. I may be as bad about seatbelts but probably not. Get down! Get down! Get down! Any rookies will testify to that. It surprises me that I even have to mention it to them. Ask Cal Henry (he still has the scars). On one of his first fires Lionel Newby dropped a little quicker and avoided them but now he knows what I mean by "low". The point being I was nearly standing up as we moved through the house. Me, the king of the low crawl. As thick as the smoke was, it was not superheated. Maybe a clue I should have noticed.
We moved deeper. I almost toppled ass over teakettle due to the eight-inch drop into a family room. Where is the goddamned fire? Nearly 40 feet back there was still no trace of the seat of the fire. Sunlight tried to penetrate the smoke through a rear window but made it maybe a foot or two. I was getting concerned about how deep we were. If it all suddenly cooked off we would have no chance of getting out without serious injury if at all. My suggestion was to head back toward the front door and try the hallway to the left (now on our right), as it probably would lead to the bedrooms. And it would put us closer to a known exit. We made a loop and backtracked. Where is the fire?
Just as we reached the hallway, Coop and I noticed the old familiar glow to our right. What I could see of it was at floor level and that seemed a little unusual but I figured I was seeing fire through the lower part of a doorway. My first thought was that a fire had started in a pantry or closet and was just now burning through. We were positioning ourselves to better direct a stream when Coop turned to me and said something that stopped me in my tracks. It was a phrase that for days afterward would just pop into my head and the next moments' events would replay like a tape loop. "IT'S UNDERNEATH US!"
It did not compute. How can a fire be underneath a concrete slab? Just slightly less than 20 years of wading into similar fires and I can count on two fingers the times I have even encountered a basement. It would be like telling a firefighter in Siberia to watch out for the swamp cooler. I cocked my head like a curious dog and repeated Coop's words in question form, "underneath us?" In the split second between those words and my understanding of what he meant, the world dropped from beneath our feet.
Firefighter Craig Cooper was gone. He seemed to have been snatched into an underground den of nothing but fire and smoke. In my mind the suddenness of it still seems exaggerated. There was no spongy feeling, no sagging or tilting. No clues, no warning. It was a high-speed express elevator straight to oblivion. But for less than a foot of distance we both would have gone down. When Craig took out the first five stairs there was nothing to stop me from doing down too. Except the railing. With a desperate stab I reached out and caught the section of railing that ran from the front door to the top of the stairs. It was reflex. The smoke was still too thick to see anything. It was reflex and luck. It was one of those forever moments. I quickly got my other hand on the flimsy railing. I pulled myself back up to floor level and looked down in disbelief. He was gone. Craig had just become another heartbreaking statistic. Another LODD. (Line Of Duty Death) God, no! This can't be happening. But he was gone. There was only the pulsing black-orange mass of a Hell-born creature… feeding.
I started to reach for my radio since I would have to be the one to call a May Day. But the blower in the doorway was much too loud and besides our Captain was only a short distance away. So I bolted for the door. When I broke into the daylight Ray was holding his radio to his ear completely unaware of what had just happened. If we had both fallen through the floor long minutes would have gone by before the he would have known anything was wrong. As far as Ray knew we were simply on a routine house fire and would shortly announce a knockdown.
There's no way I could sound normal. Yelling and running I approached Ray shouting, "He fell through a hole. Coop just dropped through the floor! Jesus Christ, he fell through the stairs!" Now Ray did the curious dog thing. "What? What hole?" I knew that, like myself, he was hit broadside by the fact that this was not your typical Las Vegas house. In Vegas you just don't think basements. (Note: I sure as hell do now, however.) Even Captain Bogle, a seventeen-year veteran fire captain had missed it. I blurted out, "It's a basement fire! Coop fell into a basement fire!"
According to our Battalion Chief, Kenny Ong, it was at this point that Ray's voice went up an octave as he asked for an ETA on the dispatch he had requested earlier and announced that he had a firefighter down. Having delivered the message and still being the only other suited up firefighter on the scene I ran back inside hoping and praying as I ran.
Although less than a minute had gone by it seemed like ten. I crawled to the edge of the hole making sure the remaining floor was strong enough to support me. The blower had moved enough of the smoke that I could see a little deeper into the dark, glowing opening. My heart was beating so hard my eyes felt bloodshot. What was Coop going through? By myself with no special gear there simply wasn't much I could do. In a way I felt like I should be down there with him but jumping in was not an option. Looking over the edge something caught my eye. It was a light, his helmet light. It moved from side to side and as much as I fought it the thought came to me that I was seeing him writhing in horrible dying side-to-side agony. For a very brief moment I thought, please God. Don't let him suffer. Take him now. Let him die now! Hurry. As awful as it sounds those really were pleas for mercy. So this is what it feels like to lose your partner.
A thousand thoughts fought each other. Son-of-a-bitch, there was no warning!
This can't be real. I'm glad I didn't know him better. I've seen men die. I've watched the last bubbling breath from the lips of a gunshot victim. I've heard the rattling in the chest of a CHF patient as they rattled off into eternity. I held my brother's hand as he finally exhaled for the last time. My mother and I pressed our hands to his chest until we could no longer feel his heart beat. Death isn't new to a firefighter of twenty years. But the death of a partner…? A thousand thoughts. This can't be real. God help me, I'm glad it's not me down there. What did we do wrong? Why didn't we notice there was a basement? What will we tell his family? This can't be real. Where is everybody else? God, take him now. It's underneath us! IT'S UNDERNEATH US!
Then a burst pipe squirted water across my mask. It pushed my head back. Damn! That's a heavy stream of water. It moved away for no reason at all and then came back and hit me again. Some part of my mind was so convinced that Coop was gone that I was ignoring the evidence. The third blast across my mask and all of the defenses were taken with it. Burst pipe my foot!! It was Coop. Coop's light was movin' because Coop was movin' and Coop was movin' because he was fightin' the freakin' demon!! The fire fightin' fool had the nozzle and was ten feet below me kickin' the fire's ass.
I slid further along so I could be extra sure. By God he was down there all right, sure as the Pope wears a big hat. He was down there, alive and fightin' that bitchin' widow-maker fire for all he was worth!! Good Lord I could have kissed the son-of-a-gun!! (not on the lips) I was glad I was crawling cause my knees felt too weak to hold me up. Man, I don't need this shit. My nerves can't take it. Sitting back on my heels I just hung my head and consciously slowed my breathing. The adrenaline drained from my pores and I grinned a weak smile as another jet of water shot out of the hole.
Just then, the units from the full dispatch arrived. Engine 42, Engine 9, Rescue 9, Battalion 4, Rehab 1, and our PIO arrived almost simultaneously. I had to know how Craig was so I decided to join him down below.
The blower had moved a lot of smoke and I could now see that the remaining two-thirds of the stairway were good to go and visibility below that was acceptable. To be as sure as I could I checked them with a pike pole and decided that it was solid enough. I leaped from sitting on the floor with my legs dangling into the breach and dropped perfectly on the landing. Coop hadn't heard me because he was a little startled when I tapped his shoulder.
"Damn," he said, looking none the less for wear. He was tossing some furniture and hitting spot fires. He looks at me and asks, "Where did you come from?" Where did I come from? Now there was a true Yuk. I, my good man, just jumped over the hole you created and risked life and limb just to make sure you weren't an illusion. In fact I was here all along. You, on the other hand, were roasted alive and died a ghastly, hideous, gyrating death while my life flashed in front of my eyes. You had an unfair advantage in the game of freak-out. You knew you were alive. I knew you were dead. But rather than get into all of that, I just said, "After you checked it out and made sure it was safe, I just figured you could use a little help. By the way, you've still got a little fire in the magazine rack under the table."
Within minutes there were another ten guys in the basement bumping into each other, and just checking out the scene of the almost tragedy. Amazing how fast news like that travels. We climbed out on a 14-foot ladder and immediately three or four guys jumped on us like an Indy pit crew and stripped off out gear. I was a little pink but Craig was lobster pink. Our "pit crew" threw cool, wet towels on the back of our necks and handed us bottles of water. I gave Coop a, "glad you're alive, but man don't you ever scare the poo out of me like that again" hug. It was when he lifted his arms to return the hug, that myself and the six or seven guys next to us saw the waxy looking flesh hanging from both of his wrists. Brother Craig had taken a pretty good shot of heat and not so much as a whimper. The medics wrapped him up and within a few minutes he was kicked back on the bed in Rescue 9 and on his way to University Medical Center.
I guess it's just human nature to analyze, and re-analyze and re-analyze again. For a long time I played it over and over wondering what I could have or should have done differently. If Craig hadn't made it, rational thinking would have been slow in returning. It didn't take much to imagine how I would have been merciless on myself, right or not. And tragedy was so close. I could see all of the possibilities. If he had snagged a nail or wire on the way down and become inverted. Landing on the back of his head from nine or ten feet could easily have knocked him out cold or jarred his mask off. Probably not survivable. Or landed on something that tipped or flipped losing the line. Or not having it when he went through. Not survivable. I never knew there could be so many voices and images in my head at once.
We were at the scene for another hour and a half; overhauling and helping a family member secure the property. A few times when I found myself close to the same spot, as I was when Craig dropped through I heard an echo of his voice saying, "It's underneath us." It wasn't the last time. For days and for no apparent reason I would hear those words again and a QuickTime movie would play in my head. That helpless feeling of loss would rise again like bile as if to remind me that life is fleeting. It's been months now and I finally stopped hearing that voice.
The sun was getting low and as we broke up the party and headed back to our respective stations I looked back at the house that had come so close to being the one. For some reason, I wanted to keep some part of that moment. Not the pain, not the sadness or the sheer terror. I think I wanted to keep the humility. I set the timer on my camera and took a photo of one badly shaken, been to the bottom of the well, firefighter.
When you roll up on a fully involved gasoline tanker, or flames blowing out of the fourth floor of an old, wood apartment building, or the eightieth floor of a high-rise, you know you could get hurt or killed. But when a single story, nothin' shakin', nickle-dime do it all the time, house fire comes within a hair's breadth of taking the lives of two firefighters it will make you humble. And that's the kind of humility that will keep you alive.