“Yesterday, I was sure/But today I don’t know anymore/Thought I was brave till I saw/My frightened reflection in a dark corridor/Now I’m surviving to be a better man/I’m surviving with an emotional plan/I’m surviving, so please understand/I’m surviving, surviving”
"Surviving" – The Kinks
I took two steps down the stairs and disappeared. There was nothing, nothing but darkness and heat all around me. Not only did I disappear, but Eric, right in front me, he disappeared too – I could still feel him ahead of me, the hose-line connecting us, but his shape was gone. I could hear him in the darkness.
Darkness, heat, my facemask covered with condensation from leaving the chilly five-degree weather outside and entering the sauna that was the basement.
There was no fire but things were still burning — the amount of heat, the smoke, it was amazing. I flipped on my helmet light – “that was about pointless,” I thought to myself.
Have you ever been driving through dense fog and at some point it strikes you to try flipping on your high beams? Maybe it’ll help? For a split second you realize you can now see even less, you flip the lights back to low-beam – that’s what flipping on my helmet light was like – illuminating the smoke real well, not much else.
“Where’s the heat coming from, man, where do we need to go?” Eric’s disembodied, muffled scream came from behind his mask.
A jab with my arm to the right: something solid, probably a wall but not really sure. A thrust to the left: nothing, open space, must be where we need to go. I felt the tug of the hose and we advanced.
I let go of the hose to clear my facemask and use the thermal imager. A scan left to right showed readings from 400 to 1100 degrees blipping across the black and white screen.
“It looks like it’s coming from about eleven o’clock,” I called back.
My mind started racing – “Eleven o’clock? you can’t see Eric, you idiot! What if he’s facing the opposite direction? What would be the point of that! What are you telling him? What if he fires the hose in the wrong direction?”
The sound of water crashing against walls filled my ears along with Eric’s challenges to the fire.
“Come on, you bastard!” Eric yelled. “Take some of that, you son-of-a-bitch!”
“Eric, where are you, man?” I called out.
“I’m right here!” came the response.
“Where the hell is here?!” I thought to myself. A ringing alarm penetrated all other sounds — Eric’s alarm on his air-pack was going off – he was getting low on air.
“We’ve got to get out here,” I called out.
“Yep, it’s time to go.” We got the hose turned around and I felt the pull as we advanced in the opposite direction. And then it happened – I fell, tripped over some unseen piece of detritus.
The thermal imager dropped a few feet in front of me, the black and white screen the only thing I could see. I crawled towards it, grabbed it up. I patted the ground all around me, feeling for the hose, but it wasn’t there.
“Eric, hold up a minute,” I called out, but no response came back.
“Fuck!” I thought to myself, “I can’t see a damn thing, I can’t feel the hose, it’s hot as hell down here and my air is getting low – I’m so screwed.”
For a split second thoughts of death seeped into my brain, of never seeing my wife and son again, panic started a slow crawl down my spine and up my throat.
“Get a hold of yourself, Ben, you’ll never get out of here by freaking-the-fuck-out,” I told myself, and the words of my instructors Jerome and Kevin and even Nick, standing somewhere outside, who’d been with me in class, came back to me – find a wall, tap a way out.
The brain is amazing when it can focus on a task – find a wall, check — actually my helmet found it first as my neck crunched back from the impact. Follow the wall, one direction, think… which way did you come in? This way, OK go…
“Where the hell is Ben?” I heard Eric, somewhere, far away. “He was right behind me, where the hell is he?! BEN!”
My knee found the hose first. “Follow the hose out” came Jerome’s voice.
“I’m right here,” I hollered back as I crawled up the stairs and saw my crew standing above me.
“That was scary for a minute,” I said to Eric as we headed over to the rescue truck to change our air-tanks. I sat down on the edge of the tailgate.
“You got a smoke on ya’, man?” I asked Eric. Eric always had smokes on him.
“You gotta start remembering to bring some with you, man,” Eric said as he handed me one, and we both lit up and sat in silence for a second, fresh tanks on our packs. We finished about the same time.
“You ready to head back down there?” I said to Eric.
“Yep, let’s go get it, man,” came his reply.