They stood huddled together like a lost flock of sheep. Confusion and chaos was everywhere. Andrea felt as if the glaring lights pierced right through her skull. Curious people asked questions but she ignored them. She hadn't stayed in the apartment yet and the only person she'd met was the manager. To anyone there she was just another curious on-looker.
Andrea stared at the smoldering shell of where she'd planned to live and felt hollow. What few things she owned in life were inside waiting for her. She gave up so much in her divorce that she couldn't afford to lose more. Each item she chose fit into her new life and represented who she was. Yet it meant nothing to her except for that one container in the closet.
She never thought it through before she broke from the crowd. Determination spurred her on even as she darted around hoses and piles of rubble. People seemed to stop moving and the night became silent as Andrea scrambled up the sidewalk.
Todd Ingram felt the exhaustion in every bone of his body as he sat on the bumper of the truck cradling a bottle of water. Several stations arrived to find a raging fire and the entire crew worked hard to knock it out. Now it was several hours later and the last hot spots were just soggy piles of rubble. Todd saw the girl right after he took his last swig of the icy cold liquid.
"Hey, you can't go in there," he yelled to the disappearing figure.
Andrea ignored the shout as she rushed through the dark hole near the front door to her apartment building. Fear struck as the rancid odor of smoke and burned furniture assaulted her but she continued.
"Don't go any further!" Todd picked his way through the debris and sloppy mess left behind by the intense gallons of water. Sweat poured off his body under the weight of his gear. Somewhere the thought registered that this young woman must be an athlete from the way she maneuvered around the obstacles with such ease. He didn't realize at the time that her sheer determination carried her on.
The oppressive heat and dread began to slow Andrea down. Her apartment door had a gaping hole in it and leaned at an awkward angle. Water covered the floor and dripped down the walls as she took a step inside to retrieve her most prized possession. She knew right where it was, too. Another minute and she'd be out of there again.
"Didn't you hear me back there?" Todd asked as he grabbed her arm. "It's too dangerous for anyone to be in here."
"You don't understand. I have to get it," she said as she tried to pull free.
"We're leaving before this place collapses on us."
She broke loose of his grip and ran into her bedroom. Part of the ceiling blocked her way to the closet but she ducked under it and crawled the last few feet. The container sat in the corner with insulation and plaster layered on it. Andrea pulled it to her just as she felt a tug on her legs.
"Let's go!" She heard the urgency in his voice and paused at the reality of their situation.
Her pant leg caught on something and stopped her progress back to where he waited in anger and trepidation. Her hands shook as she worked the container loose and stood up to face him. Todd shoved her ahead of him a few feet at a time back through her apartment and into the hallway. Worry masked the exhaustion on his face.
Andrea noticed the sounds this time. Water trickled down what was left of walls and dripped from the ceiling. Piles of boards and belongings hissed from the heat buried within. Voices from outside echoed as if in a far away canister. Her legs buckled at the sheer destruction the fire had left behind. An odd haze of smoke and steam clouded the air to fill her lungs as she tried to breathe.
"This way," Todd said as he pointed to her right.
She followed his lead this time as he stepped over and around beams and braces. Later she would wonder at how she'd ever made it to her apartment in the first place. Andrea clutched the container to her chest and trudged on. Breathing became difficult and her feet weighed a ton. She saw the fading figure in front of her disappear as her vision clouded and she fell to her knees.
The sudden shifting in the floor brought a scream from deep in her throat. Todd felt the movement and knew in his gut they were in trouble. Ten seconds was all he needed to get them to safety. Two was all he had before chaos erupted. Every instinct in him screamed to grab the girl but she was nowhere in sight.
An explosion shook the building with such force that it brought the remainder of the roof down. The floor opened and a giant cavern sucked him in. Todd felt himself tumbling through the emptiness and wondered if this was how he was going to die. Boards crashed into his arms and legs until he felt numb as he landed at an awkward angle in the hollowed out space. His last thought was of the girl as parts of the floor above him covered his injured body.
Andrea felt the crushing weight of debris above her and thought she was going to die. The space had an eerie silence to it so opposite the resounding echoes of the explosion just moments ago. Her breathing escalated as she went over the moments before the blast in her mind. She feared for the firefighter's safety but tried to convince herself he made it out all right.
It would all be her fault if he died or suffered any injuries. Andrea knew he'd been several feet ahead of her when the building blew up. That little bit of encouragement was all she needed to imagine the man making it out to the yard. Her own death wouldn't be a great loss to the world anyway, she decided.
Her vision blurred from the combination of the tears gathering in them and the dust in the air. She tried to move her left arm but only her fingers had space to wiggle. A slight shifting in the beams made her heart beat out of control. The reality of her situation slammed into her in that second. This wasn't television with happy endings for everyone.
A terrified scream threatened to erupt from her throat. Instead, Andrea coughed and choked from the grittiness clogging its way. Panic made her kick out at anything she could in the blackness surrounding her. A searing pain in the right knee stopped any further movement for several minutes.
She moved everything slower this time. Andrea felt around in the tiny space with her right arm until she hit something solid. It shocked her to recognize that the precious container was still with her. Knowing it was safe comforted Andrea as she passed out amidst the rubble a moment later.
The explosion had firefighters scrambling for safety. Hoses and equipment littered the yard as dust and smoke filled the sky above what remained of the apartment building. Only seconds passed before they turned back and began their job once more. Trey felt the energy flowing from all the crews called to fight this blaze. The latest blast shook the ground and crumbled more of the ruined structure.
This new development frightened the onlookers so much some of them screamed and moved further away. Several of the tenants stood speechless as they tried to comprehend what was happening. Local news stations fought to get quotes from anyone associated with the fire.
"Stand back, everyone," the young firefighter commanded. "You need to stay out of the way, people."
Trey worked at keeping the growing number of interested reporters and worried family members back from danger. Hours on the job made him hot and tired but he kept his irritation at bay. It always amazed Trey the way fires brought out the ignorance in some people.
"Can you tell us if there —"
"What was the cause of the —"
"— arson is suspected?"
Arms thrust microphones towards him and spit out the questions. Trey just shook his head and ignored them all. He didn't have any answers but it wasn't his job to talk to the press, either. This was his third year on the force in Colby and he loved what he did. Except for when he had to do crowd control, that was. He didn't argue though, since it was all part of it.
He'd wanted to be a fireman ever since third grade when the captain of the local station gave their class a speech on safety. His parents just chuckled at first and figured it was a phase. Trey later became intrigued with the patterns left behind in the destruction. His goal was to become part of the investigation team that worked in this area. Alarms rang in his head that this fire would be the cause of more despair than just lost belongings.
Andrea tried to distinguish the sounds that exploded in her head as she came to. She opened her eyes but saw nothing except blackness. Panic gripped her entire being at the frightening thought of not being able to see. The nausea threatened to fill her throat as she tried to scream yet only a silent whimper came out.
Muted voices broke into her terror at the same time the overpowering stench of the fire filled her nostrils. Everything came back to her in an instant, including the explosion. Andrea remembered then that the crashing ceiling and walls had collapsed around her. The damp air sent chills over her skin as she worked at calming herself. The deep breath sent a stabbing pain through her chest like none she'd ever felt before.
She waited until the worst was over and thought back to when she ran into the building. Her apartment was on the first floor but that didn't mean she was there now. It was possible she'd fallen several feet when the blast hit.
Rescue personnel would be looking for both of them she whispered. It was their job. All she had to do was make some noise when she heard them get closer to wherever she was. Andrea forced herself to relax as she envisioned the sunshine on her face once more. She lost consciousness to the sounds of water dripping next to her.
He was too tired for work, Todd thought. His body ached everywhere and the headache pounding in his skull almost made him vomit. The natural inclination to get up only brought a spewing of oaths from him. He stopped to take a breath and the rancid odor of the fire brought it all back to him. Todd saw the girl running into the building in his mind and worried what happened to her. The gear he still wore gave him some protection but she only had jeans and a thin shirt on.
Todd knew without a doubt he was in deep trouble here. He could feel both of his legs bent at an odd angle under a crushing weight. The last seconds before the explosion played back in his mind as he tried to get an idea of where he might have landed. He remembered a stairwell leading up on his left as they'd stumbled through towards an exit.
The crew would find them. They would notice his absence and do a complete search. Todd had no doubt of that. He worked with an amazing group and had faith in them. His breathing slowed as he went through the steps in his head that they would take to rescue him. That was his last thought as he drifted into oblivion once more.
An outsider would see bedlam. Anyone working the fire knew it was anything but. There were trained teams assigned to oversee every task.
Todd and Derrick went to the academy together and became good friends. A desire to be the best they could in their chosen field spurred them on. They became competitive but never resented each other.
Derrick applied for a position in his hometown of Colby and encouraged Todd to do the same thing. He'd hesitated since it meant a move of several hours away if he was accepted. That decision became easier for Todd to make when his girlfriend of two years broke up with him. Their outstanding grades and enthusiasm paid off when the city offered both young men a job.
Todd fit right in with Derrick's family and friends. They worked hard on the job and filled their time off with ball games, concerts and finding dates. That changed when Derrick met Kelly. She worked at a major bank in the state and transferred to the local branch. Derrick walked in to take care of his paycheck and left with her telephone number. It didn't take long before Kelly was trying to set Todd up with every co-worker and friend she had. She adored him and wanted him to be as happy as she and Derrick were.
Most of the men at the station fought fires when Derrick and Todd were still babies. Some may have resented the newcomers with their fresh attitude but that wasn't the case with the crew from Colby. Knowledge didn't match experience but each had a place. They all looked out for each other and never forgot the danger of the flame.
"Something's wrong with Todd," Derrick said as he sprinted over to the Captain. "He's not responding to any radio calls."
The entire crew respected Captain Joe Reade despite his gruff demeanor. He'd been a firefighter for over twenty years and loved what he did.
Derrick watched as the man snapped into action. Repeated demands over his radio for Todd to report in went unanswered. He ordered several of his men to his side and set up a search team within minutes. A check of the perimeter came back with a negative report. Dread and worry lined the faces of the entire group awaiting further instructions.
"Who saw him last?" Joe asked.
"He yelled something and went to the truck," one of the men said.
"I was there when he grabbed some water. He nodded everything was fine when I asked him," another spoke up.
"That doesn't explain why he might go back into that building when it wasn't safe to enter. I made that call and repeated it several times over the radio." Joe knew that Todd followed orders probably better than anyone did on his crew.
No one saw Todd enter the building so the questions were numerous. He wasn't anywhere outside on the scene which meant he had to be inside. They decided on his possible point of entry and the first team headed in. Joe stood helpless with his men as they reported their movements in the dangerous structure. A heavy rope kept the well-trained men together as they searched the section assigned to them. Precious minutes passed with no news.
"It's taking too long," Derrick said.
"We'll find him, Derrick."
Joe rested his hand on the younger man's shoulder to reassure him even though he himself felt a sense of unease. Too much time kept slipping away as teams took turns going in. Any injuries Todd might have only became more life threatening as the minutes passed.
Joe's radio crackled and a shout came through. "We see him!"
Derrick sagged with relief as the other firefighters cheered. They all listened for a further report from the team that discovered Todd. Paramedics waited to whisk him away. Later they could discover why he was in there. Now they needed to get him out.
"Captain, we'll need some heavy-duty equipment in here. There's about three feet of beams and debris on top of him where he landed in the basement. It's just a miracle Tom spotted his arm the way he's buried in there."
Each word took some of the hope from the crew. They knew the risks of their job and the chances of surviving if caught in an explosion. Walls and floors tumbled down like straws but weighed tons. One wrong move and the remaining pieces could crush anything in their way.
Men moved at a rapid pace as Joe spat out orders. Equipment appeared and more people stood by to watch. The noise level rose and fell as machinery ran. Rubble flew out of the gaping holes in the wall left from the fire. It seemed to take forever before anything had enough support to let a full rescue team advance. The work was tireless but no one complained. Todd was their brother in the department and they'd do everything they could to get him out of there.
Todd drifted in and out of his dream. It really was quite pleasant wherever he was, he thought. No one seemed to be bothering him, so he could study for the final exams a bit more. Yet that didn't sound right, somehow. One eye attempted to open but an odd noise stopped him.
A motor running nearby had him trying to figure out what was going on. Scenes ran through his mind in a jumble and only confused him more. If he was at school then why did he hear a chain saw? No, it was the air conditioner in the room, Todd decided. That satisfied him long enough for him to pass out once more.
One of the men got close enough to see that Todd was indeed alive but still not responding. Long arms reached out to place an oxygen mask over Todd's pale face with a sense of dread. The man wanted to pull Todd's battered body back with him but the reality was all around him. Todd was in serious trouble. Determined, he reported his findings to the captain and went back to helping the others.
A renewed energy went through the men as they doubled their efforts in removing everything in their path they could. Beams shifted and creaked while the men braced what they couldn't move. Teams came and went as air tanks beeped and energy ran low. They didn't even notice the sweat that coated their bodies inside the heavy protective gear. No one spoke but minds raced. Each knew it could be them needing help someday. Every single one sensed time was of the utmost importance for Todd.
The tension lessened as one of the medics slid into the small space they made next to Todd to assess his condition. Lights shone from above to let him find a vein and get some fluids running into the young man's system. Minutes became critical as the work continued to free him.
Heavy boots kicked away soaking wet boxes, old furniture and broken toys. At times the noise made it impossible to do anything other than yell any necessary communication. No one gave a thought right then to anyone other than Todd. All their focus went to freeing him.
Each of them felt a small sense of accomplishment when they braced the last boards holding Todd's legs. It lasted only moments as they all got a clearer look at the angle they laid at. The oxygen mask remained over his face as they splinted his mangled legs. Medication now kept him sedated to endure any pain they might cause in getting him out. Trained personnel took their time to prevent further injury before working the backboard under him.
Shouts of joy filled the air when at last the other firefighters saw the tired men haul the stretcher through the charred doorway. They rushed him to the ambulance with a sense of accomplishment. Weary men collapsed to the ground to catch their breath and say a prayer. Worry filled their eyes as they talked to each other in small groups.
Derrick had called Todd's parents and they were on the way to the hospital already. They'd left before the rescue team had freed Todd from the building and were on their way to the hospital. Derrick promised he'd be there after asking for permission to leave. Todd was his best friend and he needed to go. The rest of the crew would come when they finished cleaning up at the fire.
It took hours to remove the equipment and declare the fire out. Curious neighbors had left when the excitement was over and soon all the trucks pulled out. Just Andrea remained behind. Only Todd knew she had gone into that building and he wasn't talking.
The wail of the siren alerted the staff at Colby General Hospital of the impending arrival of the ambulance. Doctors and nurses raced to the emergency room to meet the paramedics bringing Todd in. Machines spat out data and computers beeped as information came through. Specialists were on their way in and an operating room stood ready. Vitals and statistics crackled over the radio.
Was it possible to be dead and still have to pee, he wondered? Todd's bladder screamed for relief until the question took over his mind. He thought he squirmed just as he'd done in Miss Milton's first grade class. The other kids laughed when he ran to the restroom to make it in time. It occurred to him just then that he'd never have any children now that he'd died.