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Friday, June 02, 2006

About hard choices

We discussed the Mount Everest climbers last week. Here's an article on how real people make real hard choices. Not act like leaving a man to die is acceptable

The Perfect Fire

By Sean Flynn

It started with a candle in an abandoned warehouse. It ended with temperatures above 3,000 degrees and the men of the Worcester Fire Department in a fight for their lives.

AS THE SEARCH for Brotherton and Lucey went on, the fire continued to spread, feeding on the fresh air sucked up from below and on cork and polystyrene on the floors above. In one spot, near the front wall along Franklin Street, the temperature soared to 3600 degrees, twice as hot as in a crematorium.

As the heat, smoke, and steam descended, the search was forced lower, floor by floor. The sixth floor had been impenetrable since McNamee encountered the flood of smoke on the AB stairwell around 6:35. The fifth floor, where Spencer and Jackson had been lurching blindly through a miasma of burning petroleum products--the industrial equivalent of napalm--was lost shortly after 7:30. Then, at 8:00, a panting firefighter emerged at the bottom of the stairs. "It's too hot, chief," he told McNamee. "I couldn't make it past the third floor."

McNamee took another look at the smoke roiling above him and ran through the situation in his head. Brotherton and Lucey were probably dead, Tom Spencer wasn't answering his radio, and Tim Jackson was with him. The warehouse was winning, taking his men two by two. Sending another man up, McNamee realized, would be sending him to die. He turned his back to the stairway. Fifteen firefighters were crowded in front of him, ready to climb back into a solid wall of black heat.

"No more," McNamee said.

For one stunned second, no one said anything. The only sound McNamee heard was the deafening white noise from above, punctuated by snaps and pops and hisses. Then the men started yelling, surging forward, bellowing at the chief. "They're still up there, goddammit! They're still in there!"

McNamee stood his ground, guarding the stairs, pushing his hands into the chests of the men. "Listen to me!" he hollered. "You listen to me! We've already lost four. We're not going to lose any more."

McNamee watched as his men collapsed, their shoulders slumping, their heads bowing, as if he had thrown a great crushing weight down upon them. "I want the building evacuated," he told them. "I want everybody out."

Firefighters filed out the door, each marching back to his assigned truck for a head count. Then they fell back into a defensive posture, arranging the ladder trucks on Franklin Street and on I-290 so they could raise their hoses above the warehouse. Nine trucks started pouring seven thousand gallons a minute into the inferno, most of which turned to steam before reaching the building. Flames started shooting through the roof like a torch, illuminating the night sky.

The trucks were still moving into position when Lieutenant John Sullivan ran up to McNamee. "Mike, I can't find Jay and Joe," he said. "I've been around this building three times and I can't find them."

No one had seen Jay Lyons or Joe McGuirk since Sullivan had left them at the truck. Some of the men had heard one radio call from Spencer, saying he'd hooked up with Engine 3 on the fifth floor, which would have been McGuirk and Lyons. But McNamee had ordered everyone to wait at the bottom of the stairs, rotating through in organized shifts so he could keep track of them. Lyons and McGuirk must have slipped past McNamee when he was outside trying to figure out how tall the goddamned building was.

At that moment, Sullivan knew two more were gone. The same phrase scratched through his mind over and over: "They're fucking dead. They're fucking dead. All those guys, they're all fucking dead."

BY THE TIME DISTRICT CHIEF Randy Chavoor returned to the warehouse, the three-alarm fire had escalated to a five-alarm furnace. Worcester firefighters were being called in on their days off to cover the station houses, Chief Dennis Budd had been paged away from dinner with his wife, and suburban departments were sending reinforcements. A big, nasty fire, sure, but after twenty-three years on the job, Chavoor knew how to handle a burning warehouse. "Surround and drown," the firefighters say--just keep spraying water until the flames go out. Assuming, of course, that you don't think anyone is lost inside.

He walked past McNamee on his way toward the building, never breaking stride as he patted him on the shoulder. "Hey, Mike," he said, "you got those two guys out, right?"

"Randy, no."

Chavoor stopped hard, turned around. He felt like he was moving in slow motion. "What?"

"It's not two," McNamee said, his voice weak. "It's six."

The two chiefs stared at each other, Chavoor trying to catch his breath, trying to form words in his throat. Then he slumped, the same heaviness pulling at his shoulders that McNamee had seen crush fifteen men at the bottom of the stairs. For two decades, Chavoor had believed firefighters were immortal. In one instant, they no longer were. In one instant, six were gone.

Chavoor's mind reeled, but there wasn't time to dwell on it. Chief Budd wanted two teams to make a final sweep as far into the building as they could go, and Chavoor and three of his men were ordered in with a rope. Chavoor told the lead man to tie the rope to the railing on the third landing. All four dropped to their knees and started crawling, moving single file, each man holding on to the one in front, the lead man carrying the rope. Chavoor could hear the fire roaring like an army of dragons, snarling and spitting, all around him. He couldn't see anything except blackness, couldn't feel anything but a sheet of steaming velvet wrapped around his face, swirling around him like a heavy cloth. Thirty feet from the stairwell, he ordered his men to stop. "Let's go!" he yelled. "We don't belong in here."

posted by Steve @ 12:02:00 AM

12:02:00 AM

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