This is another in a series of tales told by my probationary boss before his retirement. You can find them under the tag “Tales.”
Smoke Eater is a title that gets thrown around easily these days. With the proper use of airpacks and application of physics, no modern firefighter need be a smoke eater.
New on the job and still catching frequent big fire, our probie is assigned to the low rent district on the engine. This neighborhood is well known for the resident hotels and single room occupancies, often 5-7 floors each with 20 or so rooms scattered on a floor that has been remodeled who knows how many times in the 100 years the building has stood.
A fire in these buildings will get out of control and jump floors fast, not to mention catch unsuspecting occupants in the interior stairwell.
The bells ring late in the evening for a full box assignment, reported fire in a building.
On the engine, doors open and siren screaming, from their vantage point in the open cab they see the flames from blocks away. The south half of the 4th floor is blowing fire and catching the fifth fast. Luckily this building was recently updated with a standpipe system and, lucky still, it is not on the side on fire.
Off the engine with both bundles of 100′, the officer has the wye and they’re up the stairwell, pushing past folks running downstairs, most naked or nearly so.
Smoke is heavy on the second floor and our engine crew has been forced to their knees halfway to the third. On the third floor the heat is intense and the smoke thick. No hoods, no airpacks, just your guts and your experience to get you in and working. They hook into the standpipe and are leading the line upstairs when they are forced down to their stomachs. The heat is described as a giant elephant sitting on your neck and face, unrelenting, inescapable. To charge the line and shoot water now means a steam burn for sure. The body can take more heat dry than wet, so they push forward, a lunging crawl at a time, both members of the nozzle team wishing they could find the fire and get the hell out.
In all the confusion, they must have crawled into a closet because the team has encountered a pair of boots in their path. The smoke is thick and the low levels of oxygen could be playing tricks on their eyes.
The boots belong to the engine boss, crouching, but still walking, in a backwards duck like shuffle that outside of a burning building would indeed seem odd.
“Get off the floor you clowns, we’re almost there!” He calls and the team rises and imitates the shuffle which, to their surprise, helps with the heat, but the smoke is more intense, piercing their eyes and making them burn as if on fire.
By the time they find the bulk of fire near the end of the fourth floor, they find the truck company passed them while crawling and has already ventilated and was pulling ceiling in anticipation of water.
After the fire, amidst all the coughing, snorting and wheezing, was a kid wondering if his boss went through the same learning experience he just did. It was there in the street he finally understood what they meant by “Trial by fire.”