Michael McGinnis thrived in intense situations. In hectic conditions split second decisions were automatic to him. He was more comfortable in a blazing inferno than in the confines of his own home. Today would be no different. Pulling up to the fire, a shimmy of excitement coursed through him, followed by brief pangs of fear that he forced aside. He opened and closed his fists, feeling the sweat forming on his palms. His breathing quickened as he studied the building and what floors the fire was already eating away.
Every fire had to be treated as routine, regardless of magnitude or caliber. His first goal was to find out if anyone was still inside. He was part of search and rescue and was first to go in if need be. His eyes scanned the crowd. There were several kids standing near their parents, older couples and people all alone, all wide eyed and in shock over their misfortune.
He had been on the job for eleven years. Eleven years of interrupted sleep and unfinished meals. Eleven years of false alarms and frequent callers. Eleven years of soot and flames. He wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. Even if the job had its boring moments, the one call where he could help someone made it rewarding.
He worked for the best fire department in the best city. FDNY. As the motto on the fire engine read, “New York’s Finest.” He patted the logo painted on the passenger door every time he got in the rig. It was like his ritual. After everything he and his friends had endured, he couldn’t help but become a little superstitious.
“I think there’s still some people up on the second floor!” A middle aged woman approached their captain, her voice frantic.
“Toward what end of the building?” Michael intervened in the conversation, attempting to save as much time as he could. By the look of the fire, it was already spread across the entire complex.
“It was apartment two twenty-five, near the back end. I saw them come home this evening and they aren’t out here now. I’m almost sure of it.”
Michael headed toward the door but felt his captain’s hand grasp his arm. “McGinnis, hold on a second. I don’t want you going in alone. We’ve got a probationary fireman that can go with you and we’re getting a hose ready.”
“Sir, we don’t have time. Looks like the second floor is the worst.”
“All the more reason for you to wait.”
Michael could feel the heat blaring off of the structure. Hesitating, he looked at the captain and back at the orange flames that lit up the street like it was daytime. “I’m going in. I got my radio, I’ll let you guys know of my every move.” He didn’t allow his superior time to respond and headed in, applying his mask.
Heat overtook his senses. He had to squint as he entered the threshold of the inferno. He searched for a way up and luckily there was a staircase made out of cement that was safe to stand on. He had to crawl, ducking under fallen debris and flame engulfed pieces of wood. The roar of the fire was so loud that when he yelled out for any civilians he could barely hear his own voice.
“Is anybody up here?” Pausing, he waited for a response but could only hear the crackling of the wood as the fire ate it away. “Yell out if you can hear me! FDNY!”
The voice was high pitched and coming from behind the door the lady had said. Michael crawled to it and ran his hand up and down the frame to make sure it was safe to kick in. The knob was locked.
“Stay where you are and keep talking so I can find you!”
Michael was able to kick in the door after a few attempts. Smoke lingered in front of him making the visibility next to impossible to see in. Getting on his hands and knees, he pushed his way across the floor. Gut instinct was to look in the bathroom. Most victims seemed to always be in their bathtubs. He went around the corner and came across two kids in the shower stall, both pushed up against the tile. The mother was crouched near the toilet, tears leaving trails through the soot that gathered on her face.
“Oh thank God!” She threw her hands in the air as if she were rejoicing.
“Can all of you walk?”
The oldest girl nodded but her eyes shot downcast to the toddler. “Not her.”
Michael knelt down and saw that the younger child was unresponsive. He scooped her up in his arms. “You two follow me. Make sure you stay with me and I’ll get you out of here.”
Both nodded. The trip back downstairs seemed like an eternity. Every couple of seconds Michael would glance back to make sure he wasn’t going too fast for them. He wasn’t sure if his imagination was playing tricks on him but it felt like the flames were getting hotter with each second. The building creaked and moaned and he knew the frame wouldn’t hold much longer. He tried to quicken the pace but they both fell behind and he had to stop and go back. The young girl he was carrying still lay limp. If they didn’t get out soon it wouldn’t matter. They would all be crushed from the cave in.
It had dawned on him that he wasn’t keeping in touch with his captain like he had promised. If he tried to queue the radio he would end up dropping the child. His legs felt like mush as they made it to the bottom story. The exit was just a few yards away and he gritted his teeth and fought through the pain to get there. Letting out a low groan, Michael pushed through the door and landed out on the concrete, appreciating the cold night air. A couple of firefighters came to aid in taking the girl to the ambulance. He watched as they guided the mother and the older kid to be checked out as well.
Judging by his captain’s body language he was going to be in for an ear full. Ignoring everyone, he made his way to the ambulance where they took the family. The toddler was still unresponsive as they put her on the gurney. It was a couple of medics he knew and probably two of the best New York had. Eva Crisante placed a mask over the child’s face and began CPR. Michael stood back, his heart pounding quicker than when they were in the building. He had lost victims over his time with the department and while all of them were hard to get over, a child seemed to stick with him a lot longer.
“C’mon Michael, let’s step back. You need to be checked out by the medics.” Darryl tried to pull Michael away but he jerked his arm out of Darryl’s grasp.
“It’ll be okay, let’s go. I’m fine.”
Eva looked up from her work and shot Michael a quick glance. Her brow creased with concentration and a small smile parted her lips, almost as if she were trying to reassure Michael. She reached for the back doors and closed them as the ambulance departed from the scene. Michael followed for a few steps, watching as it disappeared down the block, the siren echoing off of the high rises of the neighborhood.
“McGinnis, I don’t think there’s a need to lecture you about what you did.” Captain Rooker stood near the engine, his arms folded over his chest. Thankfully the fire was pretty much contained and they just needed to cover the secondary search. “Good job getting that family out.” He patted Michael on the shoulder. “I think you’re just trying to give me a heart attack.”
“Don’t pat me on the back yet, I don’t know if that little girl’s gonna make it.” Michael adjusted his hat and looked back at the building that was now dripping with water. A few embers still flickered in some spots but the fire was now controlled. “We were too late.”
Captain Rooker shook his head. “You don’t know that, McGinnis. Go get the search done so we can get outta here.”