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Gabe Sullivan was helping an elderly couple down the stairs of an old San Francisco apartment building and out onto the sidewalk when the air was rocked with an explosion of flames and smoke out a second-story window.
After ten years as a firefighter, Gabe knew no fire was ever routine. No flame ever played the same game. And sometimes the simplest call could turn into the most complicated. The most dangerous.
“Everyone out,” his station captain, Todd, told the crew. “This fire has accelerated and we’re switching to defensive operation.”
Gabe still had his hand on the elbow of the gray-haired woman and she turned to him with a look of horror on her face. “Megan and Summer are still inside.”
He knew the woman must be on the verge of shock, so he spoke to her in a clear, steady voice. “Who are Megan and Summer?”
“My neighbors, a mother and her little girl. I saw them go into their apartment a while ago.” The woman looked around at the tenants, who were gathered around the fire trucks as they watched their things go up in flames that were raging more out of control by the second. “They’re not out here.” She gripped his arm hard. “You have to go inside to save them.”
Gabe wasn’t a firefighter who believed in superstition. He didn’t have a routine he lived and died by. But he did believe in his gut.
And his gut was telling him there was a problem.
A big one.
“Which apartment are they in?”
She pointed to the third-story windows. “Number 31. They’re on the top floor, corner unit.” The woman looked like she was going to cry.
Seconds later, he found both the captain and his partner, Eric, in the middle of the crowd of people out on the sidewalk and street. “We’ve got to go back in. A mother and daughter could still be inside. Third floor, corner apartment.”
Todd looked from Gabe to the fire raging inside the building. “Make it quick, guys,” he said, and gave the rest of the crew orders to focus their hose streams up toward the apartment to try to keep the flames at bay.
Eric and Gabe moved in tandem to pull the hose into the building. Masks on, their earpieces were activated. They moved up the stairs as quickly as they could through the thick smoke that hung in the air like the fog San Francisco was so famous for. With their breathing apparatus on, they were okay. But a civilian wouldn’t last long without frequent hits of oxygen.
Forcefully pushing his fears for the mother and daughter aside, he concentrated on moving from the first floor to the second, and then the third. They made good time up to unit 31, even dragging the heavy hose through the thick smoke and up the steep, tight flight of stairs. He tried the door, which of course was locked.
Gabe slid his axe from its holster. “If anyone is by the door, I’m about to knock it down with an axe. Back away.” Even though he yelled, his voice was muffled through the mask.
Jesus, the smoke was heavy, nearly thick enough to cut with a knife. Would they find anyone alive inside?
“You got it?” Eric asked him as he took a few quick hits of air.
Rather than answering, Gabe cocked the heavy tool back and landed the top of the axe head against the door, right by the knob. A hollow door would have split apart in seconds, but this old wood door was thick enough that he had to do a dozen sustained hits to get it to budge. When he felt the frame start to loosen up, he kicked at it.
Finally, it swung open and he was in.
Sliding his axe back into its holster, he reached for the hose and started to drag it inside, but it wouldn’t move.
“It’s jammed. I need more hose.”
He looked behind him and saw Eric yanking on the hose with all his might. “I’m going to have to head down and see where it’s hung up.”
They both knew how dangerous the situation was, one firefighter leaving his partner to free the hose equipment. But Gabe couldn’t stick with Eric. Not if lives were on the line. Not if the sixty seconds it took him to help with the hose meant a child might die tonight.
The flames were already rippling above his head and even though he wasn’t in the position he wanted to be in, Gabe cracked open the nozzle on the hose and started blasting the roof to push them back. He could feel 800-degree heat coming down on him over his turnouts as he moved further into the room. This apartment was clearly one of the hot points of the fire, possibly the room it had all begun in, judging by the black/white soot already covering the furniture that hadn’t yet burned.
He stilled as he thought he heard someone calling out, crying for help. With the hose still jammed, he had no choice but to drop it and make a move in the direction of the sound. A white door with a mirror on it was closed and he kicked it open, shattering the mirror beneath his steel-toed boots.
As a new flood of smoke rushed through the door, his vision was impaired for a split second, but even though he couldn’t see anyone in the small bathroom, he knew exactly where to look. He ripped back the shower curtain and found a woman holding her daughter in her arms in the old claw foot bathtub.
He’d found Megan and Summer.
“Megan, you’ve done good. Real good,” he told her through his mask. Her eyes were so big, and so scared, his chest clamped down on itself hard. “I’m going to help get you and Summer out of here now.”
She opened her mouth and tried to say something, but all she could do was cough, her eyes closing as tears seeped out onto her cheeks.
He pulled off one of his gloves to check the unconscious girl’s pulse. Thanking God that it was still steady, he put his glove back on, then reached for her.