By the 18th floor, we were breathing pretty heavy. The trucks were staged outside, but the ladders could only reach as high as the 10th floor. So we grabbed our gear and headed up the stairwell, clearing casualties and trapped victims as we made our way to the top of the smoke-filled, 25-story apartment complex, one landing at a time.
Jesse was on point, as usual. He wasn't the senior guy, but ever since we were kids his air of leadership had been as undeniable as his lanky build and blue eyes. "How many cops does it take to get a cat out of a tree?" Jesse's voice betrayed none of the effort of our ascent.
Somebody groaned. Most of the guys knew this routine already, Jesse using humor to distract us from the heat, the stress.
"Two. One to call the fire department and one to fetch the donuts."
Hoarse laughter crackled through the speakers as we turned and started up the next flight of stairs. A small, crumpled form came into view through the haze as we approached the landing. "Jake!"
"On it." I scrambled up the remaining steps and knelt beside the tiny figure, setting my medical kit on the ground. "She's unconscious. Nine, ten years old." I leaned over her, took her pulse, watched her chest rise and fall. "She's breathing. Thank God."
Jesse reached the landing. "Same God trapped her in this hell-hole, little brother?"
A long-running disagreement, one that would never be settled. "Same God that left her right here where we'd find her." That's how I saw it, anyway.
The last casualty had suffered a broken ankle, couldn't make it down the stairs. Didn't occur to her to remove her heels when escaping a burning building, I guess. One of the other guys carried her down, but the kid was going to need a paramedic to stay with her, make sure she kept breathing.
"Think you can handle her alone, Jake?" More ribbing: the girl weighed maybe 60 pounds soaking wet.
Preparing to head back downstairs, I slung my med kit over my shoulder and picked up the limp child, oxygen mask snug on her face. Along the way, her eyes opened. Terrified, tears streamed down her cheeks. I tried to soothe her, but she refused to be comforted.
At least the kid was awake, active. One for my side. Despite her squirming, I managed to keep hold of her long enough to reach the windows on the tenth floor. I handed her off to another firefighter just as a voice came over my radio: "Jake, they're starting to pile up down here. We need you."
"On my way, captain. Jess, you copy that?"
"Roger. See you in a few."
Swinging around, I grabbed the ladder and started my descent. I was still climbing down when the explosion blasted out the windows somewhere high above me. The concussion blew off my helmet, threw me to the ground ten feet below. I blacked out.
Eventually my vision began to clear. As though in a dream, the building rose up before me, its upper floors engulfed in a cloud of smoke. Firefighters raced up and down the ladders with renewed urgency. The cloud swallowed them up as they ascended, sometimes reappearing with one of their own slung over their shoulders.
Well, big brother, I thought, a lump forming in my throat. Looks like we're gonna settle that argument after all.
I laid my head against the hard asphalt and waited.