the ashes of futility
it was the last shift of the tour. after the hectic pace of the first two shifts on tuesday and thursday, it felt like the universe owed us an easy day. of course no one would say that - it was a jinx to mention a quiet shift. far too many times we had observed that the seemingly innocent comment "huh. been pretty quiet today" would unleash a shitstorm of accidents, trauma and fire. no one would taunt that bitch, whoever she was. she remained nameless, but was no less real for that. in the early afternoon i suggested that we go for a bit of "snoopin' and poopin", our label for the activity of just cruising our area in the engine. sometimes we would stop and pick up groceries for dinner - always a good opportunity to interact with our "bosses" on the street. occasionally we would encounter some new project or road construction or detour we had not known about, thereby justifying spending tax payer's diesel fuel in an aimless bit of wandering designed mostly to fight off boredom. first shift had sucked. started with an 8:15 am SIDS baby, handed to me in the doorway by the 15 year old big sister. the little girl was cool to the touch and that and her color told us our efforts would be unsuccessful, but we worked her for 20 minutes. it had just been us and the baby and her sister when we arrived. by the time we left it was a larger scene of grief and numb unreality. we offered our condolences and left, feeling it but keeping it at arm's length because that is what we do - at least until we get home. when i was new i remember some old guys saying "you'll get used to it", and of course they were right in one way and completely wrong in another. you learn to compartmentalize. but you never lose your humanity. more than once i went home from work feeling like i was OK, then crumbled into a sobbing heap with my 3 year old daughter wrapped around my legs and asking "why are you so sad daddy?" knowing there was no way to explain the combination of anger and futility and gratitude and fragility i felt at that moment. i would just say "daddy is REALLY tired honey, and sometimes that just makes me cry. pretty silly huh?" and hopefully we would laugh together and turn to another activity, one of us healed and ready to move on to the next thing, and one of us feeling dazed and numb and just a little bit three". and that was just the first call of the shift. it didn't get worse, but it didn't get much better. i fell into bed exhausted at 9, and slept until the lights came on and the tones landed and dispatch droned "Engine 71, Engine 73, Engine 76, Ladder 74, Battalion 71, possible occupied house fire, 478 Jason Street. all units switch to fire 2 for this response". shit. enroute we got an update that the house was 75% involved and neighbors thought there might be at least two people inside. embedded in that information is that anyone still inside a house that is 75% involved in fire is very unlikely to be alive. shit. shit. shit. ok. enough whining. think. plan. do your job because two blocks ahead on the left is a huge orange glow and the damp evening air has held the smoke down near the surface so the entire area is completely foggy. soon we will add "blindness" to the list of challenges we will face in the next few minutes. my driver anticipated the rig placment without me saying a word. i spent the first 20 seconds giving a sizeup and directions to other incoming units, but my heart sank as i saw this small house, now with flames at every window, most already blown out by the heat and pressure. it was the moment when i had to make the decision: are we going inside, potentially risking the lives of my crew to try to "save" people who are already almost certainly dead, or will we fight the fire from outside, preserving our own safety and admitting defeat. to this day i am not sure which way i would have gone because at that moment a young man and his wife came running up to me saying that they were the occupants and that they had gotten out but they could not find their cat. could i save their cat? could i? of course i interrogated him for just a moment. people in shock sometimes forget really important things: "does anyone else live here with you? are you certain you were the only people in the house?" they lived alone, except the cat. they had no visitors last night. i updated the information for the crew and ordered a defensive attack on the fire. heavy streams quickly knocked down the worst of the fire, and crews eventually worked their way inside and conducted mop up and a confirming search. the house was empty. the cat, of course, was nowhere to be found. as so often happens in these situations we don't get those answers. the cat may have come back, or been found and returned by neighbors, or buldozed into a pile with the charred remnants of the structure. mostly, we just never know what happens. but that was tuesday - wednesday morning really. and now here we were on saturday, cruising in the sun and waving back at the kids pumping their arms for the air horn or older gentlemen touching their hat brims as we rolled by. we picked up some ingredients for the barbecue, hoping we'd get a chance to eat dinner while it was hot, but not talking about it, for sure. as we headed back to the station i had my driver spin by the Jason fire from first shift. there was a big rig with a lowboy trailer parked out front, and a large loader was pushing charred lumber and chunks of concrete into a pile in the center of the lot. once again i observed that our efforts and the attendant drama would soon be completely erased. some new thing would pop up in this place and that old house and it's young hopeful tenants would have long-since moved on. it was then that i saw them - that same young couple. this time fully dressed, hair in place, faces composed. they were climbing into their subaru. i smiled as i saw the young woman gently place a large orange tabby into a carrier in the back seat.