Copyright 2008-2010 Julie MacShane
January 1, 2006
Webster, NH, firefighter Bette Maguire, standing firm on the ladder truck’s cold aerial platform and watching the tower hose spray water over the smoldering warehouse, wondered yet again why they had left her alone.
High above the fire was away from the main work of fire suppression. It was a job a probie could do on a bad day. But they didn’t have a probie, although they all hoped for one that spring. Yes, it took some skill to adjust the hose flow to commands from below, but she didn’t think it was suitable work for a six-year veteran who loved getting physical and dirty. Who was good at her job.
Clouds of smoke hissed and rose into the starless sky. Great icicles hung off the building from the water falling over the sides, after which it would smack against the pavement, covering whatever it could find and freezing it.
Bette’s breath came in even, foggy gusts that quickly disappeared into the night. The heat from her breath made her cold nose run and she had to swipe her gloved hand against it. She would have given anything for a tissue, but she could never have worked it in her gloves. And she couldn’t take off her gloves unless she wanted her hands to freeze.
She noticed the teams were exiting the building and leaned out a bit to see if she could see what they were doing. Nope. Her range of vision was blocked.
Her hearing was compromised as well by the sounds of the water rushing out and hitting the building’s remains. In the distance, though, she thought she could hear radios squawking and men yelling.
Her own radio began to vibrate, and she reached to raise the volume.
But, suddenly, the night seemed to go silent and still, which was impossible, unless... Oh no, Bette thought, what’s happening?
Bette held her breath and tensed, but she knew it would be no recourse against the powerful forces of a fire if they were about to mess with her...
The explosion blew her head-over-heels over the railing of the platform. Catapulting through the air, Bette saw the back of the extendable boom rushing by and knew she had to grip on or she’d be killed by the fall. She reached out, barely grasping the edge of a supporting truss bar with her ice-covered gloves.
Bette’s body stopped its descent but whirled around and slammed chest-first into the metal boom, taking her breath away and making her vision shake. Parts of the building were raining down around her. Something klunked against her helmet and she lost one hand’s grip on the rail.
Shit, shit, shit, she thought. I don’t want to go this way. Where is everyone?
Bette tried to swing her other arm onto the ladder rung, which she could see between the latticework and which she knew could support her, maybe allow her to get a leg up. But she couldn’t reach it.
As she struggled, her other gloved hand was slowly loosening its grip, each long second preparing her for a plunge down to the pavement below. She thought about Joe, about her family and friends. She wasn’t ready to die.
Suddenly two hands reached out, grabbed her arm, and pulled her top half over the railing to the ladder. Then they reached under her coat, grabbed her belt, and pulled her lower half up and on board as well. Then, they lowered her face-down on the narrow ladder.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Bette thought, gripping the rungs protectively.
“Jesus, Bette, didn’t you hear the warning! You almost fuckin’ fell and killed yourself,” Firefighter Emmanuel “Manny” Fletcher told her.
Bette did not reply. The cold, the heat, no air. She took a long, shuddering breath. The pain in her chest exploded.
Fletcher yanked her body up by her oxygen tank and studied her pain-filled face as if to see whether she was dead or not.
In that moment, Bette’s eyes finally focused on Fletcher’s finely-sketched mustache, the Hispanic features matted with soot. God, Manny saved me. I’ll never live this down.
“You’ll be all right,” Fletcher diagnosed her.
He let her go, and she dropped to her face again. Fletcher scrambled up past her to fix the stream line battered by the explosion. It was jammed for some reason, and no water was coming out.
Bette wanted to help him. She was good at fixing things; she had to be in her line of work. But she couldn’t move.
So Bette just concentrated on breathing, although it killed to inhale, and the waves of smoke made her choke. She barely noticed the ladder rocking under her as a big firefighter with a white helmet began to climb the half-distance to where she lay.
“Bette, you okay?” Acting Lt. Walter Frost asked as he crouched down above her. With one practiced eye, he ascertained her condition, but with the other he watched the now-raging fire issuing from the top of the warehouse and Manny fighting to fix the line.
“Yeah, sure,” Bette told the truck lieutenant. “Everybody else?”
“Yes. Nobody was as close as you.”
Bette wondered if he could see her limbs trembling, hear the gasp in her breath. Knowing how perceptive he was, he probably did.
“Can you climb down on your own?”
“I’m okay. I can go back up.” Bette half-turned and tried to smile at his serious black face, but her smile came out as a grimace.
“I shouldn’t have put you up here,” Frost muttered, then his eyes became angry. “Climb down now. That’s an order.”
Bette obeyed, slowly, each rung a victory, as Frost climbed up to the top to assist Fletcher.
When Bette reached the bottom of the ladder at the top of the truck, Station 10’s paramedic, Olivier “Wolf” LeRoi, guided her to the ambulance, which meant maneuvering her across the thick ice and around the new pieces of debris spread over the pavement from the explosion.
“Thank god you’re built like a tank,” Wolf told her.
“A feminine tank, of course.”
“Of course. So ladylike. When I saw you fly off that platform, I thought that was the last I’d see of you alive. If you hadn’t caught the boom on the way down…”
Bette went to pull off her helmet, but the pain in her chest made her double over.
“Relax, let me do it. Don’t argue. You’re in no condition to argue,” Wolf said.
He took it off for her, then sat her down on the ambulance. Wolf next pulled off her fire-retardant hood.
“How do I look?” Her voice was a whisper.
“Still pretty,” he replied lightly. “Hair still blond. Pale, but you’ve always been that way. What hurts?”
Wolf helped her out of her coat and sweatshirt, then pulled up her shirt. She shivered as the cold bit her. Her teeth began to chatter.
“Shit.” He threw a blanket around her. “Stay with me.”
As Wolf listened to her breathing and checked her blood pressure, he probed her ribs slowly with cold hands. When he touched one spot, Bette felt the pain explode so hard and so fast it almost made her pass out.
“That hurt?” Wolf asked. “How about here?”
Her vision faded in and out; her breath came in gasps. “Yes. Yes. You think anything’s broken?”
“No, unbelievably, but in case there’s a stress fracture, you’ll have to be x-rayed. Otherwise, just badly bruised rib muscles. You’ve very lucky you have some extra padding up there.”
Bette opened one eye. Wolf was smiling as he injected her with a cold liquid pain-killer that would knock her out.
“Yeah, I’m lucky I have breasts,” Bette said. “You know, nobody likes a wiseass medic.”
“Oh, but I know you like me,” Wolf said. “Now, I’m going to wrap you. You’re done for today.”
Bette just nodded. Wolf thought every woman was in love with him, even though she had a fiancé, who suddenly, as if he knew she were thinking about him, showed up at her side. Rescue firefighter Joe Griffin cupped her cheek with a warm ungloved hand and kissed her.
“Bette, thank god you’re okay. Walter radio’d me you fell.” Joe watched Wolf bandage her chest.
Bette focused on Joe’s dark worried eyes and his handsome Native American-inspired face beneath his helmet.
“Shouldn’t you be working?” Bette asked with a smile.
Her vision dimmed like at the end of a movie. She felt herself slipping to one side, but was caught by capable hands that lowered her to a guerney
“Woah there,” Joe said. “Where you going?”
“Happy New Year,” she managed to mumble before she passed out.