Offering Our Lives
Into charcoal-gray smoke, and then pitch black, goes the firefighter
Photography by Larry Dunn
First, you look for bodies.
What’s surprising, but only after the fact, is how matter-of-fact it is to fight a fire. You might wonder, when you’re first in the truck and settling into your seat, what sort of fire it is and who might be in danger — whether you will get hurt. But from the moment you first see smoke, or a tower of flame rising into the air in the distance, or the glow of firelight on the clouds above the house, you’re not thinking. It’s all about strapping on the air tanks, buckling the straps, checking pressure. You make sure your hood is covering the back of your neck and your coat collar is up. You adjust the straps on your air mask, and check that your helmet light and the light attached to your gear are working. You listen to the dispatch radio.
When you go live, you go with your team. By now, the fireground is latticed with uncharged hose line but, the first time in, you carry only your search and forced-entry equipment: an axe, a Halligan tool.
There’s already chaos. You know that the family is out, that they had several guests, several children. But nothing is certain and you focus on the job in front of you. Someone says “go” and you walk into the building in the dark of night, into charcoal-gray smoke and then pitch black as you fall to your knees and make your way up the main staircase.
At the top, you turn, following the boots in front of you, then turn into the first room you encounter. I always kept one hand touching a wall if I could. It’s like solving a maze puzzle — if you have a hand on the wall, you’ll always find your way out. You can’t see, so you search by feel. An axe can sweep out a big section of floor, your arm and hand sweep less far but have a better sense of feel. If you find a body, it will be soft and heavy; so will a lot of other things. You move fast — someone may still be alive in there, or at least you have to assume so. You check your air-pressure gauge often because the low-air alarm doesn’t always work. If you find a body, all bets are off. You carry it out, one way or another.
When that’s done or your air is running out, you go back out the same way you came in. When the search is over, you go back in and put out the fire.
People die in fires all the time. Kids, adults, firefighters, sometimes pets. When household members die, it’s almost always from smoke inhalation, which usually means carbon monoxide poisoning. People don’t usually get burned up, at least not when they are alive. Sometimes they are asleep and the fire spreads before they know it.
Sometimes they are on a high floor or hiding in a closet, and the rescue team doesn’t get to them in time. Pretty often, sadly often, they’ve already left the building and go back inside to get something, a laptop or a dog or a child.
Firefighters die from building collapse or are overcome with flames. That always worried me when I wasn’t inside. I remember being told that when you’re working in a burning building, sometimes you’ll feel a line of extreme heat make its way up your back, along your spine, like God or the devil’s finger pressing against you and running up until it gets to the back of your neck, where it starts to burn. That’s when you know it’s really hot. Sometimes 1,000 degrees. Usually, almost always, it stops after it gets to your neck.
When I heard this, I thought that it was probably not true, and I figured if it happened to me, I’d get pretty scared. It only happened once, and then I just smirked at it because my partner was up on one knee putting water on a sloped section of ceiling and I had to keep the hose positioned for him and keep him from leaning onto the railing that was giving way gradually at the edge of the catwalk.
My father was stationed on Saipan in World War II. He always dwelt on the subject of cowardice. Never a conversation, but it was often in his monologues. The question was always present: Would he have been a coward if he had faced the real fighting? I wondered this about myself before my first fire. It turns out that most of us can do what’s needed when the time comes. I guess we’re wired for it. The fear circuitry is helpful for a while, but sometimes it’s not and it just turns off. I’ve seen firefighters walk out of burning buildings because they simply didn’t like being in there, but mostly ordinary men and women put on the gear and go into one of the most dangerous environments on Earth because that’s the job. Fear is for some other situation. And wondering about cowardice is something even more removed, something even less helpful.
At one level, it doesn’t make sense. If your kids and your dog are safe, should you really risk death to save your house? Nobody would say yes; the math doesn’t work. “Yes, Firefighter Smith, if I have to choose between keeping my property and keeping you alive so you can have breakfast with your family, I’ll take my property.” And yet, that is what happens.
Surely, it must say something, this situation that refuses to obey the rational rules we instinctively espouse. I never saw anyone question it: not a firefighter who did the calculation and concluded that it wasn’t worth their life; not a homeowner who didn’t want to risk the lives of others; no one. There is something more going on here, something more human than the calculation, more right than the optimization.
Fires happen on autumn and winter nights, usually early in the cold season. Heating systems of all kinds are coming on line. The kinks haven’t been worked out yet — the smoking burner, the newly repaired or replaced part. In New Hampshire, like much of the northern strip of the country, woodstoves are being tried for the first time or the first time in a while. It’s the same for motor-vehicle accidents; people are relearning how to drive on ice.
I remember one night being called to a fully involved fire at a small family-owned business, a workshop that made granite countertops. Fully involved means that by the time you get there, the whole place is engulfed and there’s not much you can do other than “surround and drown.” You keep the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings or forest, and you watch it burn. The night was cold and I alternated between hose work from a spot on a low hill of earth next to the building and, after the fire was well controlled, moving through the building in full protective gear and air mask, knocking down pockets of flame and cooling the dozen or so tanks of propane. When I wasn’t doing either of these, I stood back from the fire next to the young couple who owned the business and watched them watch their dream literally go up in smoke.
They had two young children and lived in a house on the adjacent lot. They told me about starting their business. It took a lot of courage because they didn’t have much money and had to borrow most of the working capital. But their hunch was right and they worked hard and the business was growing. They were sure it would work, their vision of making a good living doing labor they loved, close enough to home to make parenting possible, creating good jobs in the community, putting their kids through college.
At first, they were agitated, asking a hundred questions, making phone calls, stopping to hold each other, walking in circles because their legs and feet told them there must be some action they could take. But after a few hours, the motion stopped and they stood in silence with their arms around each other, one or the other of them weeping. And in the end, in the small hours of the morning and until the sky began to brighten, their bodies began to slump as defeat became more concrete and surrender fell on them.
I wanted to save their building and save their dream. I wanted to tell them it would be OK. We all felt it, the loss, the sadness, the grief. But in a way, they were fortunate; there hadn’t ever been a time when the family risked physical harm. The kids were home in their own beds. The parents were cold but fine. We are not only ourselves. We build things. We see a world in our hearts and minds and we create it.
We make families and businesses. We make stories and communities. What begins inside us finds its way out and becomes the world. When we mourn the loss of a person, we don’t mourn the passing of a collection of cells and molecules — we mourn the myriad fine fibers of intention and action and relationship that this body represented. This building was not a structure. It was a piece of the story of this town, of this family; it was a place where homes were built and kitchens created with the rough stone of the earth and some good ideas and hard work. For this family, it was a section of the foundation of a lineage still under construction. It was a representation of the love that began somewhere and was sown into the hearts of this couple, to be harvested forever as the courage and the borrowing and the building and, more than anything else, the imagining took hold.
We walked among the flames and the propane tanks, not for the slabs of granite or the cement foundation or the salvageable portions of wall but for the whole of this human family.
When the sun was up, we rolled up the hoses, and instead of going home we went to a nearby church where eight or so women and men from the town had made a pancake breakfast for us. So we stripped down out of our smoke-tainted gear and went in for the food and the company. I can taste the hot, sweet blueberries and the maple syrup. Maybe I can taste the love that went into them too. Whatever we are doing here in this life, on this planet — and I really don’t know what that is — we are doing it together. Firefighters die but not often. They don’t think about it much. Maybe that’s a requirement of the job. But then, aren’t we all combusting our lives every day in service to each other and to the future? Cut and polish the granite. Install it in a kitchen. Make the pancakes. Put out the fire. And, yes, rebuild the workshop.
We are not ourselves. We are much more than that.
How I Found My “Firefighting Family”
The Temple Volunteer Fire Department is like the town itself, with every kind of person joined in community
When our first daughter was born, we decided to get out of the city. We studied the world for six months and decided on New Hampshire. I remember the first time we drove into the town of Temple, arriving from the east, passing Gary’s Harvest Restaurant and the ball field and the old cemetery on General Miller Highway and finally getting our first view of the town common. It felt like going back in time a hundred years. There were the war memorials and the Birchwood Inn and the post office and Cournoyer’s General Store and the church and town library. I knew before we got out of the car this was the place, but then we met Peggy and Joe at the store and it was a done deal.
The Temple Volunteer Fire Department is like the town itself, every kind of person — farmers and carpenters and artists and teachers, families whose great-great-great-grandparents have their names on the roads and newcomers like me — joined together in community with perhaps only one thing in common: the commitment to create a good life together. I joined the department in my early 40s and worried that I might not fit in. I always knew I wanted to get involved, but, strangely, figured that if I was going to get myself killed, it should be after my kids were older. I’m still trying to understand that logic. When I got to the station for the first meeting, though, I could see there was nothing to worry about. I walked into the room and there were guys older than me and teenagers, firefighters who were incredibly fit from their military training or farming, and others who would have trouble bending down to tie their shoelaces. But over time, I came to see that every single member of that team had something to offer. And more than that, there was a dedication to the job that was ever-present but never mentioned.
My first call was a strange one. It came shortly after sunrise, and I’d walked up to the top of a big hill near the town center just to see the view. When my pager sounded, I had to run to the station because I had no car. When I got out onto the main highway, the deputy chief was driving past me at high speed. He stopped fast and waved me into his passenger seat. As we sped to the station, he just shook his head and finally said, “Look, I know you’re new, but you should know you don’t have to run; it’s faster to drive.” I was mortified. We got to the station and donned our gear, then climbed into the truck and headed out to an MVA, a motor vehicle accident on the highway over the mountain. As we approached the accident, we could see that it was an armored car that had flipped onto its roof and skidded a few hundred yards down the highway, causing the traffic to dodge out of its way. Nobody was hurt, but we spent a good deal of time cutting the driver out of his seat belt and shoulder strap as he hung upside down, suspended in the air and just as confused as we were.
That amazing group of men and women met only in situations that were the worst experience somebody ever had. We met at house fires and car accidents. We met at brush fires and medical emergencies. We met mostly at night and often in the bitter cold, sometimes to face great risk and sometimes to do nothing more than babysit a burning power transformer on a pole as we waited for the public utility team to take care of it. To me, it was a family and I feel lucky to have been a part of it.