Friday, June 16, 2006

Family Tragedy

by Charles Angione
The following is reprinted from the book Days and Nights of Fire with permission of the author.

We were fighting a fire in an abandoned frame apartment house on East Sixth Street one bitter cold morning. The alarm had come in shortly after roll call and was "going good" when we pulled up. "Any squaters inside? Let's ventilate that front second floor bedroom...." Engine 2, first due at this address, had pulled a 1 3/4-inch attack line to the heavily involved first floor.

Inside, adrenaline overcomes pain, as the company humps hose and advances through blistering heat, thick smoke and treacherous darkness. They stay low, and their raised voices are muffled by their face masks. "Okay, there she is to your up...that's it...move the nozzle, sweep it...way to go...let's move in some more...Hey Loo, we've got fire in the that hole in the floor...let's open that wall...." The fire is in several walls at once. They will be here awhile.

Engine 4 is assigned to lay a feed line and then follow with a second handline to check extension on the second floor. Rescue 1 begins its primary search on the fire floor while Truck 3 is searching and venting upstairs. Engine 5 gets its assignment enroute. Pretty soon that company has a third line backing up the first.

Soon the fire was knocked down, and I was considering radioing an updated progress report, making the fire an "under control." I was in my usual place outside in front of the derelict fire building, trying to keep warm and beginning to think about some hot coffee and a cigarette. No civilians remained out on the street watching us fight the fire. Relatively few of them, in fact, had been outside even when it was going good. This was fairly unusual and, doubtless, partially due to the numbing cold weather. It may also have been because fires in this decrepit neighborhood were no longer a novelty.

At some point I happened to look behind me. That is when I saw the handsome black-and-tan German shepherd sitting quietly on the corner watching intently. His eyes turned to consider me for a moment and then returned his attention to the fire building. Shepherds have particularly expressive faces, and his showed concern. "Well, we've got one fire buff out here, anyway," I thought.

Later on, I was doing my walk-through. The guys had done a nice job of keeping the fast moving fire confined to the first floor. Our rescue company had done a primary search of the second floor, of course, when the fire was roaring downstairs, and had reported "negative victims" on his portable radio. The reason we perform a search of these abandoned buildings is that many times derelicts make their homes there. Now they were performing a secondary, more thorough, search following the knockdown of the flames.

"Rescue 1 to Command," I heard Lt. John Coppola over my portable radio. "Could you meet us in the second floor front bedroom?"

"Ten-four, Rescue. On my way."

When I had relieved some beat-up companies and briefly discussed with an officer how to organize our overhaul operation, I picked my way over the charred debris on the staircase and, dodging the water drips from above, met the company upstairs.

Before anybody said anything, I saw something on an old mattress that was lying on the floor. A medium sized longhaired mutt lay there -- dead. A closer look revealed three tiny pups lying up against her.

"We found them on the primary search, Chief. They were already dead, so we left them to complete the search of the floor." From all the signs, the fire downstairs had smoldered for hours, releasing more than enough toxic gases to kill, before it broke out and took off. The fact they were still in their apparent nesting place meant they had probably perished in their sleep, and were, in fact, dead when we got here. Still, along with the sorrow at the death of these innocent creatures, I felt a personal sense of defeat. The company's quiet soberness indicated they felt this, also. Most firefighters are familiar with death. It is our sworn enemy. We laugh and are irreverent at many things, but we take death -- any death -- very seriously, as one does a hated and respected enemy.

From where I stood I could see past the mattress out the front window. I moved closer to get a better look at the street. Yeah, there he was, sitting stoically on the corner across the street, waiting patiently for these strangers to leave so he could return to his little family, maybe a bit nervous about their welfare.

I've seen it so many times on this job: tragedy, large and small, in one form or another. Sometimes we act impervious to it, perhaps to keep it from breaking our hearts. But we never really get used to it, learning only how to handle it -- or hide it. These were not human victims, of course. They were merely dogs. And yet dogs -- especially those strays who were on their own -- do seem so remarkably, and pitifully, human at times, busily coming and going about their business, trying -- as we -- to do their duty, not always so sure what that is.

We called the humane society to remove the dead animals. It must have been a slow day, for they arrived uncharacteristically soon. Someone told one of the workers about the stray shepherd outside, but now he was gone. He may have been familiar with the dog pound's truck and was hiding out until they, too, left his place in peace. I was secretly and illogically relieved, somehow, when the animal control people left without him.

When the last remaining companies, Engine 2 and Rescue 1, were getting their equipment ready to return to service, we decided to return to quarters for some coffee. As B.J. drove the command vehicle up East Sixth Street and made a left on Scott Place, I looked behind me to see if the shepherd had returned. He was back, watching us leave, his ears pricked forward at attention as he yawned nervously. "Another one leaving," he might have been thinking. Just two more to go, and he would enter the building to find his family gone.

Charles Angione, former operations chief and decorated 25-year line veteran of the City of Plainfield (NJ) F.D., is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to fire service publications. Chief Angione can be reached here.

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