There is an old saying, “When it stares you in the face, that’s when you know if you’re going to just be good at this job or if you’re going to be great.” These words kept circulating through my head as the sirens screamed on top of the rig. My eyes scanned around inside of the truck. All the veterans had their gear ready to go and were talking to each other as if this was just another day. Maybe it is for them. The fear of death has diluted to a tiny fragment in the back of their minds. God how I envied them.
Training can only do so much to help your nerves. It is one of those things that helps you function under pressure, but no one truly knows if that is going to kick in as well as you think. Everyone has heard stories of guys who battle a blaze like they were born to do it. Others freeze up and hand in their gear. Training can prepare you well, but nothing can prepare you for your first staredown with death.
We pulled up to an abandoned apartment building with bright orange flames and smoke as black as coal tumbling out of the upper windows. The sirens vibrated off of the neighboring buildings and loose pieces of my gear rattled. My chest was thumping and my hands were as pale as a full moon.
Chief was barking orders to get the hydrants open and to get the hoses ready. I checked my gear over and over making sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything back at the house. I reached for my mask to check the hose. My fingers were fumbling over each other and the mask fell to my feet.
O’Neill, a twenty-nine-year veteran, slapped my shoulder, “Relax kid, it’s only fire. You do your job right and it won’t even touch ya.”
I was still more worried about the unsaid half of that statement. The half that goes, “but if you fuck up, it will touch you. Or worse, you’ll be the reason it touches one of your friends.”
Chief yelled for me to follow Gavin and be in his back pocket. I grabbed a crowbar and hustled over. “Ready kid?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Mm, we’ll see about that,” he said and made the move to the door.
We had the upper two floors to check. A loud thud erupted each time by boots slammed down on the hollow stairs. We were on the sixth floor with one more to go. The sixth floor had two apartments that were on fire, so we went up passed them to check the floors above. O’Neill and Johnson finished their sweep and followed us up to the seventh. I was the second guy in a line of four. I was looking down when I bumped into Gavin as he stopped at the top.
“Watch it, kid,” he said irritated. I nodded, a lump stuck in my throat. Gavin turned back towards the hallway, saying “fuckin’ probies” under his breath.
We checked all the rooms on the floor and assembled near a door that we can see puffs of black smoke coming out from under it.
“Put your masks on people,” said Gavin. We all got ready and he pushed me towards the door. “You got the ‘bar kid, crack it open.” I was trying to fit the end into the small opening of the door, but my shaking was making it difficult. My heart started to race as the guys were waiting on me to open the door. I finally it open and a puff of smoke came out from the room and faded away. Then we went in and checked all the rooms. Nothing seemed to be burning but the smoke that had come out when I opened the door had come into the apartment from downstairs through an open window. We searched around to make sure, but the floor was clear. We congregated in the living room and Gavin said we could take our masks off seeing as there wasn’t any smoke coming from this apartment.
“Should we go check the other floors?” asked Johnson. She had been on the job for about five years.
“Nah,” said O’Neill, removing his helmet, “the other guys got it.” He turned to me, “Hey kid, where’s your dad at now?”
“He’s up on the Northside, near Jefferson Park,” I said.
“Good. He can relax a bit before retirement. That area isn’t too hot,” said O’Neill. My dad was his lieutenant for twelve years when they both worked in the downtown area. “Ya got a lot to live up to, your dad is one hell of a fireman.”
“The politically correct term is ‘firefighter’,” said Johnson, her brow furrowed.
“Relax sweetheart, the day I don’t pull you from a fire because you’re a woman is the day you can rant all that misogynist bullshit.” O’Neill then slapped his helmet back on his head. “Well, Ladies, shall we go?” As he finished, we heard a thundering crack and O’Neill fell through the floor. Flames burst up from the floorboards and we all fell back to the ground.
Ear piercing screams were coming from below as O’Neill was consumed by the fire. I looked over the edge to see if there was a way to get to him but when I looked down, all I saw were his green eyes as they looked up at me in terror. The fire burned through his jacket and his flesh was charring, stripping off of his body. Gavin was yelling through the radio, calling for help and Johnson had fled down the stairs. My eyes couldn’t move from O’Neill’s as the image and sounds of his final moments were being branded into my brain. The screams fell silent as the fire had died down from the hoses blasting through the windows. O’Neill was gone but his eyes were still staring up at me.
Gavin pulled me away and escorted me down the stairs and outside. The sun beat down on the back of my neck as I stood next to the rig, my legs barely stable under me. The sirens and commotion that surrounded faded to background noise.
Sweat was pouring down my forehead and rolling off my nose. I was staring down at my helmet, clasped between my hands, the words “Chicago Fire Department” staring back.