It was a hazy Monday in June that promised the kind of smothering humidity that makes people cranky, which makes them want to choke the shit out of someone, we will have to fix. Long stretches of calm always make firefighters nervous; like the energy of a volcano building up, waiting for release.
I arrived late to work after wrangling with a broken fan belt. We got two false alarms followed by a small trash fire. At noon, a neighbor, pulled along by his wife entered the firehouse, holding his hand in a bloody towel. He went to push open a storm door and put his hand through the glass instead, deeply gashing his wrist. Rueben wrapped up his hand tight and told him to get to the hospital to get it stitched up.
"Yintz aren't taking me there?" he squawked in a thick Pittsburgh accent. Rueben gave him a long suffering gaze and his wife shook her head as she took him by the arm once more and they headed off.
Rueben had been quiet since my revelation. We managed a professional but strained, relationship. Truthfully, I knew very little about him. He wore a star of David and a cross around his neck and took his dual religious upbringing seriously. Like me he kept to himself, but now he shut me out and I felt like I'd lost a family member.
I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and change out of a sweaty shirt; the cotton clinging to my shoulders as I peeled it off. Rueben walked in behind me and I saw his reflection in the mirror, his expression impenetrable.
"What?" I snapped in irritation and turned to face him. He started to say something but stopped, shaking his head in frustration. Fine, don't talk to me you bastard I thought, as I brushed past him.
I spent the next hour fixing a door I'd accidently pulled off its hinges during a previous alarm. My strength can get away from me sometimes.
"Hey you can't do that without union consent," Kaz told me. Like the rest of the crew, I had little patience with officialdom. Kaz was on track to lieutenant and took himself too seriously. I grimaced at this bit of bureaucratic idiocy.
"Since when has the union fixed anything around here? What are you going to do, fire me?" I retorted and he retreated under the attack of logic.
The task calmed me while everyone else sat around restless and sweltering even with all the windows and bay doors open. Relief came when the wind picked up, cooling things off.
At four fifteen the alarm went off and it was a big one. Four other units were already there when we arrived. The fire in progress was spreading rapidly through a high rise apartment building.
"It's the Dupont building," someone said with dread.
"Holy shit, the whole goddamn building is solid wood," Phil blurted.
Actually, it had a steel frame sheathed in yellow granite but the interior was famous for its luscious and extensive use of wood. Black smoke flowed out of the windows on the ninth and tenth floors of the eighteen story tower.
Fortunately most of the tenants were at work, firefighters helped the rest out while ambulances ferried away the injured.
There is a lot of activity at fires. Commands squawk over the radio, people run around, fire hoses clutter the ground like so much spilled spaghetti, engine pumps drone amid huge puddles of water. It looks chaotic but it's managed chaos.
I was helping Fisher with the pumper when word came there were some people trapped on the roof. We hate tall buildings because the aerials can't get to the top, making rescues difficult.
" That shifting wind will make a helicopter rescue dicey," The battalion chief complained to one of the captains as they craned their necks looking up at the roof.
The two fire escapes were blocked at the eighth floor despite heavy amounts of water being sprayed to keep them clear. I watched as one guy on the eleventh floor descended the narrow stairs, slipped. His hand flinched from the handrail and he hastily retreated to the roof.
"Shit, how are we going to get them off now?" the chief worried as ideas were offered and rejected from a sea of bobbing red and white helmets.
I stood still amid the commotion and looked up to see two people lean over the edge of the roof and wave desperately as smoke engulfed them. Captain Fabiano was momentarily arrested by the sight as well and we looked at each other with the same idea. He nodded his head as if to say do your thing.
While he went to have a very strange conversation with the battalion chiefs, I removed my breathing apparatus and fetched two safety harnesses from the truck.
"What are you doing?" Kaz wondered as I walked to a clearing near the curb.
"I don't know but things are about to get real interesting," I said. His eyes widen in sudden realization.
I took a deep breath and soared into the air, quickly making it to the roof. Upon landing, I saw seven people huddled on pieces of plywood or scraps of metal sheeting. Even in my heavy boots, the surface of the roof was soft and hot-- not a good sign. I moved gingerly across the melting tar, the risk of roof collapse still fresh in my memory.
"Thank God for the fire bureau," someone called out. They looked around for a rope or helicopter.
"How did you get here?" a frightened man inquired.
"I flew," I replied bluntly.
The wind shifted suddenly and we were smothered in foul black smoke. Everyone ducked low, coughing and frightened, until the wind changed direction.
"There's no time to explain but I can get you out of here if you're willing to trust me. I'm going to fly you over to that building," I said, pointing to a rooftop across the street seven stories lower.
There was a long pause while their entire reality shifted. A man with his young son balked at the plan. I offered to take the boy but he refused to leave his father. The only woman volunteered and I put the second safety belt on her and attached it to mine. I held her in a bear hug.
"You might want to close your eyes," I suggested, instead of mentioning that I'd never done this before. She did so and in a minute I deposited her safely to the other roof.
* * *
"We're ready," I could hear our director Dave "the dictator" order sharply in my earpiece, as I quickly turned down the shrieking volume. Me, and Hal the cameraman, were on the roof of an eleven story office building nearby with a clear shot of the towering inferno. I smoothed my hair, mussed by the stiff wind and nodded to Hal as I listened to the countdown "Four, Three, two, one..."
"This is Phil Braxton reporting live from the scene of a horrific fire engulfing the historic DuPont Apartments on Stanton Avenue. Fire crews are on the scene working to contain the blaze. There are three reported fatalities with several injured and several tenants are trapped on the roof," I ticked off items on my list of facts. In the world of TV news, fires are the Superbowl of stories. Great imagery, high danger, real potential for heroics and tragedies.
The building was huge, covering half a block. The Dupont had once been glamorous, but over the years became as shabby as the surrounding neighborhood. The first floor was shops and cafes. The rest was quaint, overpriced two and three bedroom apartments in what one inspector described as a bonfire about to happen. The owner and super were in deep shit if negligence was found to be the cause of the blaze.
"Hal, focus the flames at the ninth floor." Christ, we're pyro voyeurs, I thought as I heard Dave tell the cameraman through the earpieces we both wore. I hated these things and with Dave on the other end it was like having an evil twin on my shoulder. Hal got the shot as I continued my narration and checked my notes as I was now off camera.
While Hal had a zoom lens on his camera, I had a pair of binoculars to get a clear view of the roof and saw a firefighter in full gear gesturing to the hostages.
"Hal zoom in on the people on the roof and--Jesus h," I heard Dave say as we both watched the man hold onto a woman and levitate to a nearby roof top.
"What the hel--" I started to say.
"Watch it, your mike is hot," Dave hissed in my ear. I was stunned as the figure flew back and forth carrying people. How the hell was he doing that? Is that guy really flying? Okay I must be high or something and I nudged Hal who, without taking his eyes off the camera, confirmed what we saw.
Well son of a bitch and a half, this was new. I've been in the reporting business over twenty five years and had never been left speechless until this precise moment.
"Say something, goddamn it." the director screamed. TV hates dead air-especially with live broadcasting.
"A firefighter has managed to get to the victims on the roof and is ferrying them safely to a nearby building." I felt foolish. I was tempted to say fire fairy just to imagine Dave having an aneurysm back in the studio. There was a certain sadistic amusement at the image of his head exploding.
By now, the public wondered if this was some fantastic movie instead of breaking news interrupting the last half of The Phil Donahue Show. I was wondering the same thing as I looked through the binoculars to see the guy moved effortlessly through the air without a safety line from a nonexistent helicopter or crane.
Holy shit, this is surreal. I hopped around excitedly as I watched him set the last pair of survivors down safely.
"Hal get Phil in the shot," I heard Dave direct and I turned to face the camera, my mind a blank as I stared in shock at the lens. What could I say to describe the historic moment I was witnessing?
"Say something--" Dave screamed again and my brain kicked into gear.
" --Ladies and gentlemen there are no words to convey the sheer magnitude of the event unfolding before our eyes today. Either we are witnessing the appearance of a super human or the greatest hoax ever percolated," I said confidentially as I heard Dave groan in relief or annoyance, I couldn't tell.
"Keep shooting Hal, Phil, we're cutting back to Dell in the studio," Dave informed us.
What? I couldn't believe that overbearing anchor taking over my story while we're at ground zero. I'll show that teleprompter reading idiot.
"This is Phil Braxton reporting, back to you Dell," as soon as I heard Dave cut back to the studio camera, I yanked out the earpiece and threw it with the microphone into a tote bag.
"Let's get down there and see what's happening," I told Hal. The fire wasn't the story anymore, that weird flying guy was.
* * *
It took four trips to get them all. I was momentarily slowed by the effort of carrying the extra weight of father and son as I lifted off. More firefighters arrived on the other roof to help out.
The last trip included the fellow who had backtracked on the fire escape. He had a serious burn across his hand where he had grabbed the railing. He hadn't slipped, he explained, his thick rubber sole melted from the heat.
I was exhausted but relieved as I collapsed on a metal milk crate and someone gratefully handed me a bottle of water. Paramedics tended to the injured while three cops kept a news crew from storming the scene. I instinctively turned my face away from the camera.
Seeing the stairs clogged with personnel I hopped down to the street to report to the captain. Bad idea.
The area was being evacuated as one side of the building looked like it might collapse. The din rose as trucks and crew were being moved a safe distance away.
"Anything I can do here?" I volunteered. Fabiano gave me a surprised look.
"Not with this going on," he said, pointing to a crowd the police were pushing back. Reporters surged the barricades lining the sidewalks. It was the first time I noticed the cameras were focusing on me. Fabiano leaned close to me to be heard over the racket.
"Go back to the station and we can deal with this later," he urged, waving me to a cop car. He was always thinking ahead. I vaguely knew Officer Morton as I jumped in the front seat and we sped off.
He was really tense as I attempted to give him directions while he barreled through traffic. When we arrived at the firehouse he touched my arm as I opened the car door.
"I hope you're one of the good guys," he said.
I decided, as I quickly changed clothes, to hide out at Roscoe's place. He was at home recovering from a back injury. He had been stabbed by a gang member who resented his efforts to save a rival. He then fought off two more gang members bent on killing him. He grabbed them by the neck and bashed their heads together. The man was ballsy.
I knocked on the door and in his usual fashion he flung it open. He stared at me intently.
"Get your white ass in here, show off," he bellowed. I rolled my eyes in exasperation. " I take it you've heard about the fire?"
"Oh yeah, baby you're a star'" He gushed, grinning like a coal black Cheshire cat. He waved to the TV where CNN endlessly replayed images of me flying through the air carrying people.
I clutched my head in alarm, Oh my God, What will Victoria think of this?