An Associate Editor’s Poignant Lesson
The Captain said we had 14 runs that night. I had lost count after the sixth. I was numb. I was scared.
Maybe the Captain thought I wouldn’t accept his offer. Maybe he was tired of answering questions that he thought he had heard the last of in basic training. Maybe he simply felt that somebody had to do something about educating Fire Engineering’s associate editor (“How can you work for a fire service publication without having had fire experience?”). But whatever the reason, I found myself riding with one of New York’s busiest ladder companies.
I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how any of you do it.
Incidents that would take me days to understand and edit unfolded in seconds. Nothing I’ve read about planning, procedures and firegrounds ever once mentioned the speed at which these operations are actually executed. Nothing I’ve read about fire fighter injuries ever detailed the sound and the sight of glass and plaster and debris hitting helmets and tearing at turnout gear. Nothing, it seemed, was like anything I’ve read. It was dark. It was cold. It was choking. It was . . . But you all know how it was. I didn’t. I thought I had a good idea, but no descriptions, no matter how vivid, prepared me for witnessing what I’d only read about.
I don’t remember how I got up the stairs of what was once a three-story brownstone (I’m not even sure all the steps were there). All I know was I stuck to the Captain like paper to a wall — afraid of getting in his way, afraid of getting out of his sight.
Blackened, soot-stained faces would fade in and out of the smoke. Fresh air, hurriedly gulped from a broken window, turned to singeing gases as fire fighters dove back into the darkness (it seemed so very dark). Those who caught me staring into their red, running eyes would smile and ask how I was doing. If I could have been sure my voice wouldn’t have caught or cracked, I would have answered with more than just a smile of my own.
It was about 3:30 a m. when the Captain said I could catch some sleep before the next alarm (When would that be?). I lay there, hearing the dispatcher crackle into whatever sleep I was stealing.
I’d like to say that I thought about the pride, professionalism, camaraderie and commitment that I observed firsthand — but, frankly, I was too tired to think about anything. I do want you all to know, however, that I will be reading your features with a new respect — and with perhaps a smattering of understanding of what you didn’t put on paper.
The bells went off.
I was on my feet before the Captain yelled, “Let’s go ‘
As the truck screamed down the still-dark streets, I thought for the umpteenth time that night, Oh, God, don’t let anyone get hurt.