The mask rattles against my face. The PASS device screams in my ear. Still; I feel calm, detached.
My pack air was low before I became trapped. I had been working interior as part of a two-person hose team for some time at the incident. My partner and I had been called out of the two-story residence as part of a general withdrawal in response to horns blowing on the fire apparatus outside; the situation had been deemed too dangerous for interior crews. After exiting, I had been given another quick assignment back into a part of the building still deemed safe.
Without bothering my relaxing partner, I quickly ducked back into the building. I did not replace my air bottle. I knew, or thought I knew, that I had enough air remaining in the bottle to complete my task.
I entered the space beneath a stairway. The next thing I knew I was on my back, staring at the blackness where the ceiling would be. A bit of comforting weight, the halligan bar I had been carrying, lay across my chest.
I lay there for an unknown time. At some point I realized that my mask was vibrating, telling me that my air was low; the bell on the regulator clanged twice a second to emphasize the vibration. My PASS alarm, a motion-sensitive device meant to alert rescuers to the location of unmoving firefighters, was emitting an earsplitting shriek near my right shoulder. Neither sound upset me though some part of my mind recognized them as signs of danger.
My radio crackles from the speaker/microphone attached to the collar of my turnout coat.
“C5 from C1. C5 from C1.”
I know the chief is talking to me. I don’t bother to reply. Responding would mean raising my hand to the microphone, keying the button, yelling though the mask to be heard. I can’t confront the effort. Maybe I just don’t care at that point.
“C5 from C1. Status check, please. C5, are you okay?”
I lie on the floor and consider the sounds. I can’t see anything although my eyes seem to be open.
“Interior team one from C1, interior team three from C1. Please enter the building to search for C5. C5 last seen entering the building from the ‘A’ side about five minutes ago, no contact since then. Believe C5’s air to be low; take a spare bottle. “
“Team one acknowledges.”
“Team three acknowledges.”
My training has kicked in and I am using circular breathing; breathing shallowly to maximize my remaining air. I lie on the floor of the dark room and explore the universe.
Clanking and pounding sounds get louder and softer through the building. From time to time, my radio makes noise as one team or the other updates the incident commander with their progress. At one point I hear a pounding sound on the other side of the stairwell wall; I think about knocking on the wall but ultimately can’t summon the effort.
After some time something hits me on the side; once, twice. After a few seconds, gloved hands touch my helmet, my mask, my pack.
“Shit! He’s in here!” A rookie screams to his team leader.
My radio crackles to life again as the interior team leader yells though his mask into his radio microphone.
“Team three to team one. We’ve found C5. We’re on the first level in a closet off of a room on the ‘B’ side. Please assist.”
“Team one. We’re on our way.”
I am being pawed at. Someone removes the halligan from across my chest. Someone puts their head to mine and yells, mask to mask.
“James, we’ve found you. We’re going to get you out of here.”
I hear the two team members discussing how to get me out of the closet. Without ceremony, I’m rolled onto my left side, entanglements removed from my legs, and pulled on my side through the doorway into the room beyond.
I become aware that the second team has arrived; I can hear more yelling voices, muffled through my mask and theirs.
Someone leans down and yells into my mask.
“James, we’re going to change your tank.”
I’m rolled farther onto my side, almost face down. I can feel activity at my back. I hear one of the leaders yelling instructions.
“Unstrap the bottle first. That’s right. Okay, turn it off before unscrewing it.”
The firefighters at my back turn off my air bottle. With my next breath, my mask presses to my face; no more air to be had. The firefighters quickly start to affix the new bottle to my pack while one of them yells to me.
“James, we’re changing your bottle. Fresh air coming right up!”
The new bottle is screwed in and opened; I take my first breath after twenty or so seconds. The air is cool; delicious.
I’m left face-down for a few seconds; the rescuers are having a quick conference.
“C3 to C1. C3 to C1. We are going to pass C5 though a window on the ‘B’ side.”
“C1 acknowledges. Will be ready to receive C5 on the ‘B’ side.”
The rescuers flip me over onto my back and drag me through the room. They are crawling on their hands and knees; they curse and grunt as they drag my 16 stone across the floor.
I hear the window being broken. The combined interior teams try to lift me from their crawling positions; I am heavy. On the third attempt they get me up and my back onto the window sill, head dangling out of the window. Rescuers on the outside grab my pack straps and heave me out as the interior teams lift and push my legs to assist.
The chief and another firefighter half-carry, half drag me to a position on the lawn about fifty feet from the building. The chief leans down to talk to me as I sit up and take off my mask.
“Well? How do you think they did?”