Between A Rock And A Hard Place
Marco set the glasses on the table. Six. One for each of the men. Johnny had a gallon of milk in each hand. As he neared the table, it happened.
At first, it was barely noticeable. If it hadn’t been for 2 of the unattended glasses clanking together, no one would’ve been aware of the earthquake’s first motion. A brief but strong rolling motion followed.
Johnny turned and headed back to the fridge. “Damn. And this was one lunch even Chester B. couldn’t screw up.” Johnny mumbled the comment but everyone heard – they couldn’t help but laugh. “Better put the eggs away, Chet.”
The words had barely escaped his mouth when the tones sounded.
“Station 51, possible gas leak, 835 Highland Hills Drive. 8 – 3 – 5 Highland Hills Drive. Cross street Camden. Time out 12:17.”
“Station 51. KMG-365.
As the men drove to the Highland Hills address, they were pleasantly surprised.
“Doesn’t look too bad, Roy. Doesn’t look too bad.”
“No, it doesn’t. What do you think? 5.0?”
“I’m telling you, Marco, it was a 7.0!”
“Chet! You know it wasn’t above a 6.0.”
“You twits, it wasn’t even a 5.0.” Cap was shaking his head. But, he was smiling too. Like his paramedic crew in the squad ahead, he noticed that the damage was minimal along the way.
Pulling up to the address, Johnny let out a low whistle. “Look at that house, Roy. Looks like a Holiday Inn! How big do you think that thing is?”
“Probably 5000 square feet. Don’t you think?” Roy looked at the 3-story house and whistled too.
Both men jumped out of the squad and approached the engine behind them.
“Holy crap! Have you ever seen a house that big?” Chet was trying to calculate the value as he stood with his hands on his hips.
“Okay, men, get your tanks on.” Clicking the button on the handie-talkie, Cap queried dispatch. “LA, engine 51.”
“Go ahead, 51.”
“Can you verify that the gas has been turned off to the area?”
Pausing a moment, Sam spoke with the gas company before passing along the confirmation to the captain of Station 51.
“10-4, 51. Gas company confirms…”
The noise of the south end of the house exploding drowned out Sam’s confirmation that the gas was turned off.
“LA, 51, tell the gas company that the gas is NOT off. Get it off. NOW! Respond an additional engine to this location.” Turning to his crew, he knew that they would already be in action. And, they were. “Chet, Marco, take an inch and a half around side.” Looking around, Hank spotted a neighbor heading toward the engine. “Roy and Johnny, hang tight for a minute.”
Chet and Marco rounded the corner, crunching shards of glass from blown out windows as they prepared to handle the flames within. Training the water on the fire, the men slowly inched up towards the house.
Hank Stanley approached the man near the engine. “Sir? Sir!”
Once he had gotten the person’s attention, the captain continued. “Do you know if
anyone at this address is home?”
“Yeah, that’s her Porsche in the driveway. I was coming over to see if she’s okay. But, I don’t see her.”
How many people live in the place?”
“Oh, it’s just Grace. She got the house in a divorce from her husband. The kids are all grown and on their own.”
“Okay,” Hank waved the two paramedics over. As they trotted up to him, he gave the orders. “You’ll need to do a sweep of the place, this gentleman doesn’t see the owner. Let’s see if we can find her inside.”
“Right, Cap,” Johnny said, as Roy started for the house. In no time, they were inside, hoping it would be a quick rescue.
Back up personnel arrived to help fight the fire, which
allowed for Chet and Marco to cover Gage and DeSoto inside. It was too large of
a house for them to drag the hose everywhere, but luckily thus far the flames
had stayed contained on the south side.
The interior of the home was obviously damaged from the quake. The ceramic tile flooring in the foyer was cracked in numerous places, and two table lamps in the living room had fallen off end tables and broken into large pieces. An old grandfather clock on the corner of the room had fallen over on its side and a light coat of dust from the textured surface of the ceiling covered furniture and carpet, faint cracks evident over the men’s heads. But there was no sign of the woman. As Roy started towards the north end of the house, Gage headed towards the back, coming to a closed interior door. A flashlight in hand, Johnny opened it and peered into the basement to see if the victim was there. The staircase had collapsed near the top, preventing the paramedic access to the large room below. Gage placed his hand on the door frame and leaned forward, calling out the woman’s name, his voice muffled by the air mask.
“Hello? Is anybody down here? Hello? Grace?”
Kelly and Lopez stood nearby, ready to assist if needed.
“Grace!” Johnny called again. “Hello?”
“I’m down here!”
Johnny turned to the men behind him. “She’s in the basement!” The paramedic pulled his Handie-Talkie from a pocket of his turnout coat. “Engine 51, this is HT 51.”
Hank Stanley’s voice came through the small speaker. “Go ahead, HT 51.”
“Cap, I’m gonna need a ladder in here. We’ve got a woman trapped in the basement, but the stairs have collapsed.”
“10-4, HT 51.”
As Roy appeared through the smoke, Chet waved him over. Like Johnny, Chet’s voice was muffled because of his air mask.
“Johnny found her! She’s in the basement! Someone’s bringing a ladder in.”
Roy nodded as he hurried around Marco and Chet, who were still standing by with the hose in the event the fire spread from the home’s south end.
“Whatta ya’ got?” Roy asked his partner as he came to stand beside him.
“The woman’s trapped down there. The stairs musta’ collapsed during the quake.”
Johnny turned back to the open doorway. “Grace?”
“Are you injured?”
“My right ankle hurts, and I bumped the back on my head against the concrete floor. A cabinet fell on me.”
“I was down here doing laundry when the earthquake hit. I have a metal cabinet that I keep my wash soap and fabric softener in. It tipped over and fell on me.”
“Her voice is pretty strong for someone who’s trapped under a cabinet,” Roy observed. “It must be one of those light weight ones. You know the kind I mean?”
Johnny nodded. If the cabinet was what he was picturing in his mind, then it was just like the one that had been in his mother’s laundry room when he was a kid. About five and half feet tall, two metal doors that swung open, room for four to five shelves inside, and it probably didn’t weigh more than thirty pounds.
“Yeah, and if the doors came open and everything fell out of it when it when it tipped, then it wouldn’t have had any extra weight in it,” Johnny said. He saw two firefighters from Station 44 hurrying toward him while carrying a ladder. He turned back to the open doorway. “Grace, we’ve got a ladder! My partner and I will be down to help you in just a minute. Just stay still and don’t move!”
Johnny helped the men get the ladder into position. Because of the debris from the stairway piled on the basement floor, it took them a few moments to find firm footing for the ladder’s legs. Once it was in place, Johnny started down with Roy following behind him.
Johnny and Roy made quick work of assessing Grace’s injuries. They also made quick work of getting her loaded onto the stokes and readied to get out of disheveled basement.
“We’re gonna need some help getting her out of here, Roy.” Johnny was looking at the ladder and scratching his head.
“Did someone say something about needing help?”
Johnny’s eyes traveled upward to see the faces of the 2 guys from 44 peering down from the doorway up above. Looking back at Roy, Johnny chuckled. “Ask and ye shall receive.”
The four men easily maneuvered the stokes up and out of the basement, all fear of the dangers associated with such a rescue up a ladder removed. Eight hands were much better than four in such a situation. Roy reached the top of the ladder and stepped onto the floor. Reaching back to give his partner a hand, he was surprised to see him heading back down the ladder.
“Go ahead, Roy. Just realized we left a few things down here. I’ll be up in a minute. Help the guys get Grace out to the squad.” After seeing Roy nod and move away from the opening, Johnny headed over to the forgotten equipment. Pausing a second to look around, Johnny was stunned at the size of the basement. This basement is bigger than Roy’s whole house! A noise from above returned Johnny’s focus to the ladder and the doorway above. Within a matter of moments, he was up the ladder and looking down the hallway toward Marco and Chet. He was somewhat surprised to see them hosing down the hallway. Good thing we’re getting out of here. Fire must be coming this way.
Marco nodded toward Johnny. Chet looked up and saw Gage offer the thumbs up – rescue complete. Johnny paused a bit longer until he saw his shift mates begin making their way toward him. Johnny had only taken a couple steps when he felt the earth begin to move again.
Aftershock. And a good sized one. 4.4? He stepped back to check on his friends just as the floor rumbled again. He watched, as if in slow motion, the floor collapsed beneath Chet and Marco. His view was shrouded by a spray of water. Johnny dropped the articles that were in his hands and tried to protect himself from the wildly snaking hose. He was about to grab an area just below the nozzle when the hose swung around, the nozzle catching him alongside the head. Whether it was the force of the water or the blow to his head didn’t matter – he found himself stumbling backward and into the opening of the basement door. When he finally realized where he was heading, he made a desperate grab for the doorframe. The last thing he remembered was the feeling of falling.
Roy had only made it halfway to the squad when he stumbled. Oh no. His gut tensed as he turned to look at the house. The windows shattering to the right side of the front door confirmed his worst fears. This one was stronger – the strongest tremor since the quake. Enough to shake the foundation of the weakened house. Probably a 4.5. Damn!
Everyone on the scene looked up at the sound that emanated from the house. There had been a further collapse.
Roy and Cap began running to the house. As they neared the front door, the unmistakable sound was heard again. Another area collapsed. The earth hadn’t moved again but the house had. All anyone could do was watch as the area of the house in front of them began folding in on itself.
Neither Lopez nor Kelly was prepared for the drop in store
for them. Chet was thinking about how glad he was that the rescue had been a
quick one; Marco was anxious to get out of the damaged home as well, and had
his mind on the natural air outside.
When the floor started to buckle underneath them, the men thought they were making progress forward to make an escape. However, in the few short seconds before the floor gave out entirely, they had merely made it a few inches further on the continuously shifting surface.
After falling through and landing apart from one another, the two firemen instinctively curled up, each in an effort to protect himself from the assault from above.
When the horrific sounds ended and everything but some of the dust in the air had settled, Marco found himself partially underneath a pile of floorboards and beams. The fireman shifted his position slightly, only to be awarded with a shooting pain in his left arm. Ignoring the pain, Lopez crawled out from underneath the rubble and sat up. Blood trickled down the left side of his face from a small gash on his temple. Marco glanced around through his dusty air mask.
Where’s Chet? Dios! How big is this basement? Chet? Marco peered at the huge, debris-filled expanse in front of him.
When he heard a groan from behind, the Hispanic fireman slowly moved to face the other direction. A few feet behind Marco, Chet lay partially covered under more of the debris. He was slowly coming around after being unconscious for a minute. Kelly absently pulled off his mask that had been knocked askew. Breathing in some dust, he coughed, groaning again when he felt a slight pain in his right ribs.
Roy couldn’t believe what he was seeing. And there wasn’t
anything he or Captain Stanley could do even though they had almost been right
at the front of the house.
“Cap. . .”
“Go take care of Grace, Roy. Just to make sure she’s okay. We’re gonna need a few minutes to figure out a game plan here, anyway.”
Roy nodded. He knew Hank was right. They had too many things to consider. The lack of stability of what was left of the huge structure, the possibility of more aftershocks putting more men in danger, and the chance the three men inside didn’t survive. DeSoto took a long look at the collapsed house and nodded again turning to leave. He could hear Captain Stanley behind him trying to get in contact with Johnny on the HT.
“Cap . . Roy?”
Johnny had the feeling that someone familiar was calling to him, and he tried desperately to answer. But his voice was thin and weak, and whoever was calling him seemed far away, as if lost in a fog. Struggling to open his eyes, the paramedic was not surprised when he couldn’t make out his surroundings, and for a moment, he wondered if he was, indeed, caught in some type of fog bank. He quickly pushed that notion aside as he realized that the murky haze settling around him was actually a cloud of dust.
‘Where am I? Roy? What were we . . oh . . the lady trapped in the basement. .’
Suddenly, memories of the quake flooded back, and Johnny sighed with relief as he recalled that Roy had been out of the house when it hit. Just as quickly, he realized the dust in the air was thick, and making it extremely difficult for him to breathe. Fully aware that his oxygen tank was still strapped to his back, Johnny reached for the mask, but his unexpected yelp of pain was so sudden, it was surprising even to him. It took several minutes of concentrated effort, but Johnny finally managed to get his breathing under control. The piercing shaft of pain in his shoulder equally matched the blinding pain in his head, not to mention the difficulty he was having breathing. Wrapping his one good arm around his chest, Johnny held his side tightly as he struggled to overcome the urge to cough. Not my ribs again . . wish I’d quit breaking those things.
The pain was almost unbearable, and he found that any movement caused the room to spin about dizzily. Finding that he couldn’t move his arm or turn onto his side, Johnny finally lay back in defeat. From his position on the floor, the injured paramedic was able to make out a vague outline of the metal cabinet lying next to him. Scattered around him was a mound of debris that could only have come from the floor above, and as he moved his head carefully to survey the damage, he was surprised to see a familiar object several feet away. The oxygen mask he’d been searching for was no longer connected to the tank on his back. Somehow, in his fall to the basement, it had been torn loose and now hung crazily from the jagged edge of a beam.
Continuing his visual assessment of the situation, Johnny soon realized it would be virtually impossible to find a way out, even if he could move. From what he could see in the dim light, it looked as if half the house had made its way to the basement. Unfortunately, the one item he desperately needed didn’t seem to be there. The HT was nowhere in sight.
By staying on his back, the pain had eased a little, but the dust was quickly causing him problems. His lungs were full of the stuff still settling around him, and Johnny continued to fight the need to cough. Each cough seemed to drive his air tank deeper into his back. Any movement caused his side and shoulder to scream with pain, and though the pain in his head had subsided to a dull throbbing, the dizziness was still there whenever he changed his upper-body position. Man, at least my legs don’t hurt…MY LEGS! Johnny fought off the pain and dizziness to raise up just enough to see his legs. Pinned, dammit. But at least they don’t hurt. Somehow, that thought was more of a concern than a comfort. Once again laying back, his mind spun with the reasons that his legs could be pinned under the steel and wooden beams yet not cause him pain.
A clicking noise caught his attention, and Johnny strained to make out its location. The HT clicked again and this time he could make out a voice calling his name.
“Cap, Cap. . I’m down here.”
The paramedic would’ve laughed at himself if he hadn’t been so desperate. The HT was nowhere in sight, and from the faint sound, it had to be at least halfway across the room. Besides, there was no way Captain Stanley would’ve heard him, even if he had been able to thumb the switch. Johnny’s voice was nothing more than a faint whisper. However, the next call sent shivers down his spine. The first time, Hank had called using Johnny’s name. Now, he was calling for Chet and Marco. With a start, Johnny realized that the other two firemen hadn’t made it out. They were somewhere down in this mess along with him.
Closing his eyes, Johnny tried desperately to ignore his sense of panic. They’re coming, guys. Cap will find us. . .
Slapping his hand against the ambulance door, Roy turned and
quickly headed off to find his captain. He’d been relieved to see Squad 14 pull
up just as the attendants were loading Grace into the ambulance. Even though her
injury wasn’t serious, Roy had convinced the lady that she should go to the
hospital as a precaution. The fact that her house now laid in shambles had been
an added inducement. It had only taken a quick explanation to persuade
paramedic Tim Edwards to ride with Grace to Rampart, leaving Roy free to join
the search for the missing members of ‘A’ shift. As he reached Captain Stanley,
he could hear the man’s repeated calls on the HT.
“Any luck, Cap?”
“No, Roy, not a thing. I’ve got Station 14 on the way; we’re going to need the extra manpower.”
“Yeah, Squad 14 just got here. They’d been at Rampart so they were able to get here a little quicker.”
Hank tried once more to call Johnny, but the answering silence was deafening. He stared at the radio for a moment before voicing his thought.
“You know, the HT may have been damaged, or it may just be out of reach. We’ll just have to keep trying it every few minutes.”
Mike stepped up to join them, his quiet presence a comfort to the others. The three men stood for a moment, quietly contemplating the scene before them. Hank quickly broke the silence. “Let’s go find them.”
Marco eased himself over to help Chet. The stocky fireman
was having a difficult time freeing himself from the debris. Lopez’s efforts to
get over to Kelly left the fireman feeling weak. After several minutes of
sitting still to regain some energy, Marco slowly began to move items off of
his friend using his good arm.
As the load lessened, Chet moved out from under the remaining debris and lay on his side, taking everything in.
“Man, Marco,” he began, coughing again, “we end up in the basement?”
The Hispanic fireman nodded. “From the sounds when it happened, I think that just about the whole house came down on us.” His voice was still muffled from the mask. “Here.” Marco held Chet’s air mask up towards him. “Put this back on.”
Chet took the piece of equipment and placed it on his face. He then saw his helmet nearby and put it back on as well. The fireman studied Marco’s appearance.
“Your head’s bleeding.”
“You don’t look so good yourself.”
Kelly looked up at the mass of boards and beams criss-crossed above and around them. Broken pieces of furniture were strewn about, some hung up in the tangled mess above. The shredded carpet from the hallway dangled through in parts. Both men scanned the areas around them. Each direction held a mess – one way looking bigger and more filled with destruction than the other.
“How’re we gonna get out of here?” Chet wondered out loud. “Gage had the HT.”
“Gage. . .” Marco’s eyes darted around the small area fully visible in the dim surroundings. “Did Johnny get out?”
“I don’t know. I think he was on his way out when we--”
Lopez put his hand up to silence his co-worker. “Listen.”
Both men sat in total silence listening for any sound Marco may have heard. Suddenly they were rewarded with a very faint voice in the distance. It was coming from somewhere down amongst the rubble.
“Gage?” Chet couldn’t believe it.
“Sounds like him. I hope he’s in better shape than we are.”
“Hey, at least he has the radio. Maybe he’s contacted Cap.”
“Yeah. Hopefully.” Marco stared at the debris leading away from them. “It’s gonna take us awhile, but we’d better head towards his voice. If we’re all in one place, it’ll make digging us out that much easier.”
Lopez slowly got to his feet and held out a hand to help Chet up. Once both men were standing, they began their painstaking journey to where they thought they’d find Gage.
Hank discussed the rescue plans with the captain from
Station 14. With the threat of another strong aftershock being a possibility,
neither man was ready to send their men into the ruined structure. And since
damage in the county was becoming widespread, heavy equipment was already in
use in more populated areas. It was decided that all the men would carefully
remove the rubble by hand. If they could clear an opening into a pocket where a
person could be trapped, they would decide then if someone should crawl in. But
the mound of rubble was enormous. The men knew it could be hours before any
progress was made at all.
In the meantime, Captain Stanley would continue to try to rouse his buried men on the HT.
As Johnny lay by himself in the dark confines, he thought
back to the events that led to where he was now. He recalled Chet and Marco
falling through the floor; the hose that had been in their grasps snaking
around wildly after they had to let go. As he remembered the hit he took,
Johnny realized why his head was throbbing. The hose had nailed him good in the
side of his head.
The paramedic groaned again, then closed his eyes, coughing slightly. He could smell the residual of smoke, along with the musky odor of dust. His lungs and throat were hurting from what he had already breathed in.
Oh man. I hope Chet and Marco are in better shape than I am.
On the other side of the basement, Chet and Marco made their
way carefully through the debris. Although they’d been able to stand at first,
as they worked their way through the remains of the fallen house, they were
forced to stoop or crawl under and over mounds of concrete, wood, steel beams,
and other ruined materials.
The dusty haze only added to the already dark interior of the basement, and the two injured firefighters found themselves feeling their way through the wreckage. Both men were relieved to have the use of their gloves as they grabbed a hold of various pieces of debris, whose sharp edges bit against the leather covering their hands. It seemed like a long journey, but looking behind them, Marco could see that they’d only made it part way across the immense room. Although the sound of a persistent voice urged them on, the two men were exhausted.
“Chet, let’s stop for a minute.”
The voice inside the oxygen mask was muffled, but Chet had clearly heard his friend’s suggestion. Or maybe it was just that he was so weary, having his friend stop made for a good excuse to collapse to the floor. Breathing heavily, Chet tried to calm himself as the world revolved eerily around him. His head hurt, worse than he ever remembered, but watching Marco as he gingerly sat beside him, Chet knew he wasn’t alone. With his arm tucked carefully into his turnout coat, Marco was slumped forward, and even in the dim light, Chet could see that his friend’s head was still bleeding.
“You okay, Marco?”
“I’m doing okay. Wonder how much farther.”
There was no response, and Chet peered through the darkness at his friend. Marco was looking off to his left, intent on something, but the weary Irishman was unable to see what it could be.
“Marco? What is it?”
“Listen . . .the voice. It’s not Johnny’s.”
In the quiet recesses of the basement, the firemen could make out the faint call of a familiar voice. But now that they were closer to the source, they recognized the voice was not that of the young paramedic.
“Yeah, it’s Cap. Sounds like he’s calling Johnny.”
“Have you heard any answer?”
Marco and Chet sat quietly, their focus on the distant voice of their captain. After several minutes, the transmission ceased, and silence once more filled the cavity. Removing his mask, Chet cleared his throat as best he could.
“What do you think? If Johnny’s not answering. . .”
Unable to answer Chet’s query, Marco merely pulled himself slowly to his feet. Their only hope was to work their way to the HT, and hope that they’d find Johnny in the process. Crossing himself quickly, Marco breathed a silent prayer, and returned to his slow journey. Behind him, Chet replaced his facemask and followed his friend, sending up his own silent plea that they’d find their other friend alive and well.
Roy pulled frantically on a piece of wallboard; cursing to
himself when it wouldn’t move. The mound of debris before him was daunting, and
the paramedic found himself struggling to stay calm. He knew that every second
counted for their friends trapped below, and his frustration mounted with every
delay. Reaching down to dislodge the material, he recognized the hand stretched
out to help him. Tossing aside several pieces of metal, Roy turned to face
“Has he answered?”
Hank studied the younger man for a moment before responding, knowing instinctively how much importance was being placed on his reply.
“No. But we’ll find them, Roy.”
Turning back to his work, Hank didn’t hear the soft reply behind him.
“Yeah, but will it be in time?”
Still lying stiffly on his back – the tank starting to take
its toll on his muscles - Johnny found
that he had lost track of time. Only the
continued calls from Captain Stanley kept him company as he waited in the
darkness. He knew the HT was somewhere close; could hear the static at the
beginning and end of Cap’s transmissions. The problem was, he couldn’t tell
exactly where the radio had ended up; and had no way to get to it, even if he
did discover its location.
With a groan of irritation, Johnny twisted his head to the side, only to be rewarded with a wave of nausea. Great, this just keeps getting better and better. Trying to relax as the sick feeling subsided, Johnny soon found himself overwhelmed with a bout of coughing. The pain in his side was white hot, and tears streamed from his eyes as the injured man finally succeeded in controlling the excruciating cough.
Everything hurt, but the fact that he couldn’t get up to help himself or anyone else, only added to his frustration. In an effort to keep his mind off his pain, Johnny tried to focus on the whereabouts of his crewmates. Surely Roy and the others were looking for them. Listening to the silence around him, Johnny forced himself to remain calm. It was then that he heard the faint call.
Looking slowly to his side, Johnny realized that the radio was silent, and that the voice was different. No, voices ... Holding his side carefully, Johnny struggled to answer, but he knew his thin response would not be heard. He had to find a way to make some noise. Unfortunately, he was too weak and there was nothing to use. Fervently hoping that Cap would call again, Johnny waited for the radio to come to life. Minutes passed but the waiting didn’t dampen his optimism. Somewhere in this heap of rubble, Chet and Marco were calling his name
Rampart Hospital’s emergency room was always a picture of controlled
chaos whenever a large-scale disaster had occurred. Whether it was a multi-car
pile up on the freeway, a massive brush fire, or as had happened today - an
earthquake - meant the phone never stopped ringing, and patients never stopped
coming through the doors. So far, the injuries Dixie McCall had seen had been
minor. Cuts and bruises due to falling debris, one woman suffering from a panic
attack, a few elderly people with heart conditions who had gotten themselves
worked up to the point of hyperventilating, and one broken arm. But numerous
paramedic units were out in the area that appeared to be hardest hit by the
aftershocks - Highland Hills. So until
some of those units began calling in, Dixie wasn’t certain what to expect.
She’d already instructed one of her nurses to call all ER staff members due to
come in at three, and request that any who could, report for work as soon as
possible. Dixie had also informed her first shift employees that they might be
working over time, depending on just how many patients the ER ended up serving
that afternoon. For the most part Dixie had a good staff, but there were one or
two who would head out of the door right at 3:00 unless specifically told not.
Dixie had just finished getting information from a woman whose ten-year-old son was having twelve stitches put in above his right eyebrow by Mike Morton, when she saw Tim Edwards coming in with a patient.
“I have everything I need from you, Mrs. Symmonds,” Dixie said to the anxious mother, as she rounded the nurses’ counter. “You can have a seat in our waiting area. One of my nurses will bring Jimmy to you as soon as Doctor Morton is finished.”
“Only my son would be on top of a set of money bars when an earthquake hits,” Mrs. Symmonds said with a nervous chuckle. “He’s lucky he didn’t crack his skull open, or break an arm.”
“Yes, he is,” Dixie smiled. “But he’s going to be fine, so please have a seat. I’m sure we’ll have you and Jimmy on your way home within the next twenty minutes.”
As the young mother walked away, Dixie looked at Betty. “Squad 14 didn’t call in, did they?”
The head nurse hurried toward Tim and the ambulance attendant, both of whom stood in the middle of the hallway awaiting instructions as to which room the patient should be put in.
“Did you call in?” Dixie asked Tim.
“No, this is 51’s patient. I came in for Roy. He stayed at the scene.”
“Oh. . .all right, ” Dixie said. “I don’t have a treatment room available at the moment, so you’ll have to leave Ms…”
“Grace,” the woman on the gurney said. “I’m Grace Anderson.”
Dixie noticed the woman’s left ring finger was devoid of a wedding band, so continued to keep her identification neutral. “You’ll have to leave Ms. Anderson here in the hallway.” The nurse smiled at Grace. “I apologize for this, but as you can tell, the earthquake is keeping us busy.”
Grace’s eyes tracked the nurses, doctors, and x-ray technicians rushing past her. “Yes, I see that. It’s okay. It’s just my ankle anyway. I think I sprained it. I could have taken care of it myself once the firemen had me out from under the cabinet, but they insisted I come here.”
“She also has a bump on the back of her head,” Tim told Dixie.
“It’s nothing,” Grace assured. “I don’t even have a headache.”
“It sounds minor then,” Dixie agreed, “but it’s better to be safe than sorry. As soon as a treatment room is available, I’ll have an orderly get you settled, and then a doctor will be with you.”
Dixie had Tim and the ambulance attendant transfer Grace from the stretcher to a gurney. She covered the woman with a sheet and propped her right ankle up on a pillow, while the attendant wheeled his stretcher back to the ambulance.
“You just lay here and try to stay as comfortable as you can,” Dixie told Grace. “If you need something, don’t hesitate to get the attention of any nurse or orderly you see walk by. Otherwise, I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”
Before Dixie could walk away, Grace asked, “Can you tell me what happened to that paramedic who helped me get out?”
“The young man with the long, dark hair. He found me and helped me get out of the basement, but then he went back into my house to get some equipment he’d left. While his partner was helping me into the ambulance, the aftershock occurred and my house collapsed. I’m not sure, but I think the young man was still inside.”
Dixie looked at Tim. Now it was beginning to make sense to her why neither of Squad 51’s paramedics had ridden in with Grace.
“I don’t really know what’s goin’ on, Dix,” Tim said. “We’d just gotten to the scene when Roy asked me to ride in with the patient. I got the impression he was anxious to get back to the house – or rather, the pile that used to be a house. I heard some radio transmissions that indicated some men were trapped in the house, but I don’t know who.”
“Did you see Johnny?”
“No, I only saw Roy, not Johnny.”
Tim might not have known who was trapped in the fallen house, but women’s intuition gave Dixie a pretty good idea as to the identity of at least one of the men.
“If you don’t need me, I’d better go,” Tim said. “Larry’s probably waiting for me outside.”
Larry was Tim’s partner. Dixie nodded her head. “I don’t need you. With everything going on today, I’m sure the department will want you guys back in-service as soon as possible.”
“No doubt about that,” Tim agreed.
As the man turned to walk away, Dixie said, “Listen, Tim…if you’re in here again this afternoon and have any news about 51’s men, would you try and find me, please? I’d like to know what’s going on.”
“Sure, Dix,” Tim promised. “If I know anything, I’ll do my best to get word to you.”
“See ya’ later.”
Before Dixie had the opportunity to begin worrying about Johnny, or the men who might be trapped with him, two construction workers hurried through the automatic doors supporting a bleeding, semi-conscious co-worker between them. Dixie called for an orderly as she rushed to help the men.
"C'mon, Cap, say something." Chet's words were
muffled by his facemask but Marco heard them nonetheless.
Both men stopped. Chet scanned the ruins to his left. Marco scanned to the right. When their eyes finally met, they read the same frustration in each other's face. No HT. No Johnny.
A dejected Chet was the first one to sit down again. Hesitating for a moment, Marco made one more full scan of the area around them. Removing his facemask, Marco wiped the sweat from his brow. They'd only been moving a few minutes since their last rest, but pain and exhaustion were mixing with fear and frustration to wear them down.
"He's gotta say something, Marco. We're not going to find that HT in this mess unless Cap says something again."
"Yeah, Chet, I...did you hear that?" Marco looked forward and to the right.
"Hear what?" Chet was squinting in the same direction as Marco.
"Oh, God, Marco. Is that Johnny? Is he choking?"
"Johnny? Gage, where are you? Make some more noise?" Marco was getting to his knees when both men were startled by an ominous sound.
"No! Not yet!" The alarms caused the two firemen to grab their masks and enjoy their last breaths of clean air.
Marco was shrugging off his tank when confusion overtook him. "Chet, why didn't we hear Johnny's tank? He should be out of air too. His alarm should have sounded."
"Oh no, Marco. You don't think he's been in this smoke and dust all this time without air from his tank, do you?"
The weak coughing sound in the distance answered the men's questions.
"Madre de Dios." Marco quickly dropped his tank and mask and then helped Chet discard his. Both men had to pause to catch their breath. The pain of their movements was evident on both of their faces.
As Chet and Marco took their first steps toward the faint rasping sound to their right, they heard the unmistakable clicks of the HT off to the left.
"Try him again, Cap. Please." Roy's voice was
tempered with fear.
Hank Stanley shifted his gaze from Roy to Mike. Grabbing the HT from the pocket of his turnout coat, Cap paused a moment. He hoped the few seconds were enough to mask his voice from echoing the fear he had heard in Roy's voice and had seen in Mike's eyes.
He clicked the transmit button twice before finally speaking.
Johnny's confined world was spinning around him. Nausea was
pressing at his throat but he didn't have the energy to roll over and throw up.
After a couple bouts of choking and coughing, the feeling of nausea began to
He was sweating like he'd run a race. Closing his eyes to the sting of the sweat and blood mixture rolling down from his forehead, Johnny's eyes suddenly shot open.
Alarms. Chet and Marco. So close. Johnny listened to the sound of his friends' air tanks. I'll yell when the alarms stop. Won't hear me now. Johnny's gaze shifted to his useless air mask. "Thanks for nothing!", he yelled in a whisper, frustration overriding the common sense that told him to save his energy.
A sharp intake of air caused his ribs to scream. Coughing quickly drove all thoughts other than pain from his mind. Even so, he was able to recognize the clicks of the HT in the distance. Another quick movement caused his world to spin faster. He had no choice now. He tried to roll his upper body to his right but was stopped by his air tank and all the debris against it. Of course. What else?! Johnny gritted his teeth as he rolled toward the left - toward his injured shoulder. Sure, this side is wide open. Couldn’t have been this side blocked and the other side free of debris! If the nausea wouldn't have already made him begin to vomit, the blinding pain from his shoulder and ribs would have made him do so anyway.
Chet moved quicker than he thought possible. He knew he was
within feet of the HT.
"Johnny? Can you hear me Johnny?" Cap's voice was strained.
"Got it, Marco!"
Chet laid down on his stomach and slid forward a few inches under some fallen beams. Straining to reach between broken drywall and wood, Chet snatched the HT. He eyed the prize in his hand as if it was made of solid gold. Clicking the transmit button, Chet excitedly began to rise.
Marco watched but didn't have time to warn his friend. In Chet's excitement, he didn't slide far enough backwards to avoid all the beams.
Chet cracked his head on one of the steel beams at the same time he depressed the transmit button.
"Owww! Owwwww!! OWWWWWW!!!"
Stanley looked at the HT in his hand in surprised shock. He
had hardly expected John to answer, though he’d hoped. But Chet? Hank quickly
depressed the mic button.
As Johnny’s stomach heaved, he heard Chet’s head hit against the beam, then the cry of pain that followed. Gage braced himself against the pain the retching caused, and emptied the contents of his stomach. Turning his head away from the offensive mess, he shifted his upper body as much as possible. Great - it's not enough that I'm nauseated for the pain and dizziness. Now I'm gonna be nauseated from being nauseated.
Licking his dry lips, Johnny mustered up as much energy as he could and called out for help.
“Chet. . .” The paramedic was surprised at how weak his own voice sounded. He rested a few seconds, then tried again. “Chet!” This time the effort caused Johnny to go into a bout of coughing. He winced at the resulting pain that shot through his body, nearly causing him to vomit again.
Marco grabbed the HT out of Chet’s hand as the Irishman
rubbed his even more sore head.
“Cap, it’s Marco--” The fireman stopped in mid-sentence when he heard Johnny getting sick at his stomach. I hope he’s not lying on his back! We better find him ASAP! Lopez could tell by the expression on Chet’s face that he must have had the same thought.
“Marco.” Came the captain’s voice over the HT. “Are you guys okay?”
The Hispanic fireman ignored the question as he followed behind Chet towards the sound of Johnny now weakly calling out for Chet.
After being swamped helping with patients, Dixie McCall finally got a minute to take a break. As she walked towards the base station, the nurse realized that she had yet to see or hear anything from Roy and Johnny. She looked at her watch. It had been about an hour since Tim brought in Grace Anderson. Dixie had an uneasy feeling about the situation with the men from Station 51. After finding out from another nurse who had been given the duty of covering the radio transmissions with the various paramedics that neither Johnny nor Roy had called in, the head nurse became even more concerned. If the trapped men weren’t out yet, just how long would it be until they were?
Roy stood quietly, his gaze focused intently on the HT
Captain Stanley held tight in his hand. Mike had also stopped digging as the
men waited impatiently, silently willing a voice to respond to Cap’s persistent
“What’s going on down there?”
The tone of Roy’s voice alerted his captain to the paramedic’s frame of mind. It was obvious that they were all concerned over their missing comrades, but Roy’s worry had just escalated. With Chet answering the HT that had been in Johnny’s possession, it was clear that something must have happened to the junior paramedic.
Ignoring Roy’s question, Hank simply raised the HT and called once more to his missing men. Unfortunately, the radio remained silent.
Johnny’s line of vision seemed to narrow and dim as he
fought the overwhelming urge to cough. It seemed that the more he fought it,
the stronger the urge became. Blinding pain shot through his body as he
struggled to sit upright, but Johnny hoped the effort would pay off. Even
though he was barely conscious, the paramedic knew he needed more air in his
lungs, and lying on his back – and especially against the air tank - wasn’t helping. However, with each attempt to
move, he was rewarded with another attack of nausea, and the exertion was
quickly draining him of what little energy he had left.
Finally realizing he couldn’t manage to sit up alone, Johnny slumped back. Once more balanced precariously to his right side, trying to gain support from the debris against his tank in order to lessen the growing pain the tank was causing in his back muscles, the injured man continued his battle with the dust and smoke. No longer strong enough to even call for Chet, Johnny wondered if he’d be able to last until they found him.
Chet pointed ahead, then scrambled quickly over the last
beam separating them from their missing friend. Johnny’s body was turned away
from them, and all they could see was his dark hair above the brown of his
There was no answer, and Chet was overwhelmed with fear that they’d arrived too late. Seconds later he was almost relieved to hear a series of strangled coughs.
“He’s alive, Marco.”
The last few feet of debris were swiftly crossed and seconds later, Chet and Marco knelt on the floor next to their injured friend. With practiced ease, the two firemen checked over the paramedic, quickly assessing him for any broken bones. They were immediately aware of the serious nature of Johnny’s injuries. A broken collarbone, ribs that were obviously damaged, and pinned legs meant the young man would not be climbing out of this mess on his own.
“Marco, check this out.”
“Man, he must’ve taken quite a blow to the side of his head. Johnny, can you hear me?”
A pair of brown eyes was slowly revealed as Johnny struggled to look at his friends. His voice was thin and weak, but clearly filled with relief as he answered Marco.
“Gl a d to see. . you . .guys.”
Instantly, Johnny’s relief was replaced with panic as another coughing spell overtook him. Unable to speak as he tried desperately to breathe, it was the look of fear in Johnny’s eyes that moved the others into action.
“Marco, we’ve gotta get him out of here, now! Where’s the HT?”
Grabbing the radio from his pocket, Marco immediately keyed the mic.
“Cap? Can you hear us?”
Rampart’s emergency room continued to bustle with activity
as a result of the earthquake, but as of yet, no one with life-threatening
injuries had been brought in. As Kelly Brackett walked out of a trauma room, it
didn’t escape his notice that Dixie was once again hovering inside the base
station. All available personnel had been pressed into service, and as usual,
Dixie had taken on more then her share of the workload. But whenever she had a
few spare seconds, she seemed to gravitate toward the radio that kept the ER in
communication with the fire department.
Brackett opened the door and stuck his head in the room. “Is a paramedic unit calling in?”
Dixie put down the clipboard of paramedic call-sheets she’d been reading over and sighed as she turned around. “No.”
The doctor smiled at Dixie’s odd reaction. He would have thought she’d be happy about the radio’s silence. They were busy enough without having calls coming in from paramedics in need of doctors’ orders.
“You don’t sound too happy about that.”
Brackett arched a questioning eyebrow. “You’re not?”
“No. The last I heard, John Gage might be trapped somewhere in the rubble of a collapsed house.”
“Who told you this?”
“Tim Edwards. He brought in a patient for Johnny and Roy. He was under the assumption that several of 51’s crew might be trapped, but he didn’t say who.”
“No,” Dixie shook her head. “Tim saw Roy at the scene.”
“Then maybe Johnny was around somewhere and Tim just didn’t run across him.”
“Maybe. But the patient Tim brought in was asking about Johnny. It was her house that collapsed. She seemed pretty certain that Johnny was still inside when it came down.”
“So that’s why you keep checking the call sheets and listening for the radio,” Brackett surmised.
“That’s why,” Dixie confirmed. “But so far, nothing.”
“What about Tim? Did he and Larry go back out to the scene?”
“I don’t know. He told me he’d keep me informed if he found out anymore, and that was almost 90 minutes ago now.”
Brackett stepped back from the door so Dixie could walk out of the room. “I’m sure the fire department is just as busy as we are. I wouldn’t worry about it too much if I were you, Dix. Until we know something more, there’s no use in assuming the worst.” Brackett looked at his watch. 90 minutes. The golden hour has passed. Not good. Not good at all.
“I suppose not.”
“And you have to quit mothering all my paramedics,” Brackett scolded with a teasing note to his voice. “Especially Johnny.”
Dixie glared up at the man. “Oh, really, Doctor Brackett? Does that mean you’re ordering me to stop mothering all the men around this place, too?”
Because Kelly Brackett knew first-hand what chaos would reign if Dixie McCall wasn’t the head nurse in charge of his ER, he also knew better than to say anything but, “No, Dix, I guess that’s not what I mean.” He smiled at the woman. “But just don’t worry too much about Johnny. I’m sure he’s fine.”
“I hope you’re right, Kel,” Dixie murmured as she led the man to the trauma room where Grace Anderson awaited treatment. “I hope you’re right.”
Relief came over the worried captain’s features when he
heard Marco calling on the HT. He quickly depressed the mic button.
“Marco? You guys all right? Why didn’t you answer me sooner?”
“Cap,” came the reply, “we had to hurry and find Johnny. It sounded like he might be aspirating.”
With that news, Roy’s concern increased a notch. He anxiously listened to the conversation on the radio.
“How is he?”
“Not good. It looks like he’s been without his air mask since everything fell down on us. . .he’s got a nasty gash on the side of his head. . .a broken collarbone. . .”
“Can you guys see any light from above where you’re at?” Hank asked. He glanced around at the other worried faces of onlookers.
“No. It’s dark and dirty down here. Looks like the whole house is on top of us.”
“It practically is.”
Roy stepped in closer to his captain. “Cap, we gotta get those guys out of there. I’m sure Chet and Marco have to have some kind of injuries they aren’t telling us about. And Johnny. . .”
Hank nodded. “I know.” He depressed the mic button again. “Marco, what are the chances of you guys getting John to a better location for us to reach you?”
“Negative, Cap. His legs are pinned by a few beams that are mangled and covered with other debris. He’s not going anywhere until we get help down here.”
Roy’s stomach knotted. He was going to have to talk his shift mates through taking care of Johnny with absolutely no medical supplies available. That was all he could do until by some miracle they reached the men.
Cap fingered the mic but turned his attention to the tentative voice from the man next to him.
Hank Stanley nodded as he handed the HT to Roy.
"Marco?" Roy recognized the fear in his own voice. Shaking his head as he looked at the ground, Roy quickly switched into paramedic mode. "Marco, I need details on all 3 of you."
Marco knelt beside Johnny. As he began to update Roy, a strained voice was heard over the HT.
Despite his best efforts, the paramedic mode was replaced by that of a friend. "Johnny? Marco, can I talk to Johnny?"
Marco held the HT as close to the injured paramedic as he could. "Go ahead, Johnny. Do you want to talk to Roy?"
His friend's weak voice and labored breathing tore into Roy's heart. The frown on his face did not go unnoticed - or unmatched - by Cap or Mike. "Hey, Junior, I'm okay. How 'bout you?"
"F...Fine, R...oy. 'M fine."
"Twit." The sadness in Cap's eyes betrayed the smile on his face.
"That's not what I hear. How are your legs, Johnny?"
"Fine...don't h-h-hurt at all." Johnny began coughing.
"Chet, can you raise him? I can't. I've got the HT." Marco never released the mic button. "Relax, Johnny, you're okay."
"C'mon, Gage, lean against my arms, don't try to hold yourself up. I got ya, Johnny, I got ya." Chet was shaking.
"Marco?" Roy couldn't get through. Marco still had the mic depressed. "Did you hear that?" Roy shifted his eyes between Cap and Mike.
"Yeah, Roy, Johnny sounded bad."
"No, Mike. I mean, yeah Mike, Johnny did sound bad. But, did you hear Marco? He couldn't help because he was holding the HT. Damn!"
"Roy?" Cap was confused. By the look on Mike's face, he was too.
The noise from below stopped, alerting Roy to the fact that Marco had finally released the mic.
"What's wrong with your arm?"
Mike shrugged his shoulders at Cap.
"Don't worry, Roy."
"No, Marco. I need to know. It's bad, huh? Or else you would have been able to hold the HT and still helped hold up Johnny. Now, tell me the extent of your injuries - and Chet's and Johnny's too."
Cap and Mike traded amazed looks. They'd heard the same thing that Roy had but they didn't put 2 and 2 together to realize Marco had an arm injury.
Roy took the notebook from his pocket as Mike grabbed the bio-phone.
After relaying what little information he had to Roy, Marco sat back wearily as they waited for instructions. Chet had maintained his position behind Johnny, helping the exhausted paramedic remain as upright as possible, but the air tank was now causing them both a great deal of discomfort.
“Marco, can you help me with Johnny’s tank? I think if we can get it off of him, he’ll be able to sit up a little better, or at least lean against one of us.”
After several unproductive attempts, Marco dropped his hand with a groan.
“Can’t do it, Chet. Just can’t get it unfastened with only one hand, especially at this angle.”
Dropping his head for a moment, partly in frustration, and partly due to the steady throbbing from his own wounds, Chet watched as Johnny struggled to breathe. Looking back at Marco, he could see his friend clenching his teeth, obviously in an effort to control his own pain.
“Okay, Marco, I’ve got an idea. Let’s trade places. You sit here behind Johnny, and I’ll get the tank off of him.”
This time there was no reply as Marco merely nodded, and then moved closer. With the greatest of care, the two firemen exchanged places, cautiously moving Johnny from one set of worried arms to another. As Chet released his hold, Marco settled back, his one good arm gently supporting the now quiet paramedic.
“Johnny, you still with us?”
“Y . . eah . . Marco. I’m still . . here.”
Chet’s worried frown grew as he watched Johnny’s face. It was obvious that the paramedic was growing weaker by the minute, whether from his problem breathing or some other injury they couldn’t detect. Straining to keep the mood light, Chet gave his instructions in an almost chipper tone of voice.
“Okay, Gage, you’re going to let me do all the work, right? I’m going to get your tank out of the way, but I want you to just relax and breathe slow. Marco’s got you, and I’ll be as careful as I can. Johnny?”
No answer, but the look in John’s eyes along with a single nod in response gave Chet the permission he needed. With practiced ease, the worried man undid the straps and carefully pulled the SCBA from his friend. As the offending equipment was finally set aside, Johnny sighed softly.
Leaning back against Marco, he closed his eyes again, and fought to keep his breathing slow and steady. He knew his friends were doing their best for him, but an underlying sense of panic was slowly starting to overwhelm him. With each breath, he took in more smoke and dust, which only added to the pain of his damaged ribs. He was cognizant enough to know that he needed to be in a hospital and soon, and from what he could see, his friends needed help too.
“R o. y . . .”
Without realizing it, Johnny had uttered one word before slipping back into that black void where there was no pain or worry.
“Johnny! Stay with us, man!”
Chet and Marco exchanged worried looks even as Chet grabbed the HT and thumbed the switch.
“Cap. Roy. Hey, Johnny just passed out on us. Guys, you need to get us out of here . . fast!”
Chet’s urgent, “Guys, you need to get us out of here fast,”
had been spoken over an hour ago now. An hour that seemed like ten. Hank had called dispatch and requested four
additional truck companies be sent to his location, and had requested a
paramedic unit. Whether by chance or by design, Tim Edwards and Larry Harris
from Station 14 were sent to the scene once again. The captain also requested
that a bulldozer and two front-end loaders be dispatched to the scene. In the
meantime, as trucks arrived and firefighters disembarked from them, Hank set up
an old-fashioned bucket brigade to begin clearing away the debris.
For once, Captain Stanley was grateful for the news trucks surrounding what had been Grace Anderson’s large, sumptuous home. They were doing live broadcasts of the rescue attempt, which drew fifteen off-duty firemen to the scene. Hank was thankful for the extra hands, and knew the broadcasts would likely bring out more men before the day was over.
The firefighters formed two lines made up of twenty-five men each. Empty buckets passed through one line, as full buckets of plaster, tile, and wood, made their way down the other. Roy stood on a pile of debris at the head of one line, and every few minutes called, “Marco! Chet! Johnny!” in an effort to gauge where the three men were at. Roy hadn’t been able to hear any of his co-workers calling to him, but Hank had maintained contact with Chet and Marco through the HT. The trapped firefighters could hear the men working above them, and when the bulldozer and front-end loaders arrived, could hear the engines rumbling. The machinery couldn’t traverse the rubble for fear the weight would cause something to dislodge, and then cause further internal collapses. At least the big buckets on the front-end loaders could be filled with debris, and that debris hauled to the edge of the yard at a faster rate than firefighters on foot could haul it. While this was occurring, the bulldozer’s operator pushed large beams and boards from the edge of the destruction in an effort to clear as much of the area as possible.
Hank depressed the button on the HT. “Chet?”
Because of the work going on above ground, the men now had to shout in order to hear one another.
“How’s everyone holding up down there?”
“Me and Marco are doing okay, Cap. Tired, thirsty…getting a little hungry, and I think we’d both like a hot shower and a handful of aspirin right about now, but we’re hanging in there.”
“What about Johnny?”
“He’s coughing a lot, and keeps drifting in and out on us. He…he’s pretty disoriented when he is awake.”
“Okay, well we’ll have you guys out soon, pal,” Hank assured, for lack of anything more positive to say.
“Cap, Marco and I’ll probably be able to climb out of here as soon as the guys above can give us a hole to get through, but Johnny isn’t going to be able to.”
“I understand that. Don’t worry, Chet. We’ll get Roy down to him, get him the medical treatment he needs, and then get him out of there.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy, Cap. He’s really pinned under these beams. I don’t think the guys are gonna be able to lift them.”
“We’ve got equipment for that.”
“I know, but things are really tight down here. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to have to come out before you’ll be able to risk lifting these beams. In the meantime…well, I don’t know how long Johnny can wait, if you know what I mean.”
Hank pressed the mic button again. “Yes, Chet, I know what you mean. All right. Thanks for the update. Save the batteries, pal.”
“10-4, Cap,” Chet said, right before he cut the transmission in an effort to conserve the HT’s batteries like Hank had ordered.
Chet looked up, only seeing mounds of debris above him. What he wanted to see was a shaft of light that would indicate the men were making progress, but so far, it remained dark within their smoky, dust-filled tomb. Chet sat on a wooden beam, while Marco remained behind Johnny with the paramedic’s upper body resting against his chest. Chet wasn’t frightened for himself, or for Marco either. Though they were both in pain, he knew they weren’t seriously injured. Since the men working to free them would get through sooner or later, Chet had no doubts he and Marco would be in halfway decent shape when they were pulled out. Granted, a stay at Rampart for both of them was a given at this point, but once their injuries were tended to, and they’d gotten something to eat and been given fluids, they’d likely be released within forty-eight hours. What worried the Irishman was Johnny. Chet wasn’t a paramedic, but he knew Johnny needed to get to Rampart as soon as possible. Hell, he knew Johnny needed to be at Rampart hours ago. As Chet looked around at the steel beams, the sheets of plaster, the kitchen countertops and cabinets, and wooden wall frames that had once made up the house, he wondered how they’d ever get Johnny out in time.
Things were quiet in the E.R. for the moment. One of their
last earthquake victims to be looked at by a doctor, Grace Anderson, had been
treated for a sprained ankle and had just been picked up by her daughter. From
what portion of the conversation Dixie had overheard, Grace would be staying at
her daughter’s house for some time to come. Dixie felt sorry for the woman. She
couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have your home reduced to a pile of
rubble in a matter of seconds. Right before Grace had been pushed out to her
daughter’s car in a wheelchair, she’d asked Dixie, “Have you heard anymore
about that paramedic who helped me out?”
“No, I haven’t,” Dixie said, while doing her best to offer the woman a reassuring smile. “But I’m sure he’s fine. There’s no need for you to worry.”
Now Dixie stood in the nurses’ lounge watching the news broadcast on T.V She glanced up when someone pushed the swinging door open. Kelly Brackett stepped into the room and came to stand beside the woman.
“Any word on 51’s men?”
“A reporter briefly interviewed Hank. He wouldn’t identify anyone by name since no family members have been notified yet, but he did say three of his men are trapped. I’m pretty sure I saw Mike Stoker carrying a bucket of debris away from the house, and I know I saw Roy passing a bucket to another fireman.”
“Which means it’s Marco Lopez, Chet Kelly, and Johnny who are trapped.”
Brackett headed for the door. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“Let’s contact the fire department and have them patch us through to Hank. If nothing else, we can find out if he’s been in contact with any of the trapped men. If he has been, then we’ll discover just what we need to be prepared for at this end when they’re brought in.”
Dixie nodded at Brackett’s line of thinking. If they needed an OR on standby, or needed blood available, or needed to call in additional doctors, all advance preparations would be of benefit in the event any of the men was seriously injured.
The nurse smiled as she followed Brackett to the base station. “And you said I mother Johnny.”
The doctor didn’t reply, but Dixie could tell he was trying hard not to smile back at her.
Chet and Marco sat in silence for several minutes. Each man
was lost in his own thoughts. Thoughts about the events since arriving on the scene.
Thoughts of the fall and their injuries. And, thoughts of their suffering
Marco felt the movement before he heard Johnny's pained cries.
"Chet. Help me. Get Roy or somebody."
Johnny's hoarse screams began just as Chet turned to look at Marco. Johnny was moving in ways Chet didn't believe possible. His back muscles had gone into spasms so intense, his upper body looked like it was twisting different directions at the same time. All the while, his body was pulling against his pinned legs making matters worse.
Grabbing the HT, Chet moved next to his friends as he clicked the button for a transmission.
"10-4, HQ. Rather than a relay, tell Brackett we'll set
up the bio-phone. We'll be right with him."
Captain Stanley had just barely gotten the words out of his mouth when Roy established contact with Rampart.
"Go ahead, Roy." Brackett didn't hesitate in using the paramedic's name rather than the station's number.
Roy opened his mouth but all that escaped was a gasp - a gasp caused by the sounds coming from the HT in Cap's hand.
Chet was about to speak when Johnny's violent movements
caused his arm to hit Marco's injured arm.
Marco's loud cries still did not completely overshadow Johnny's hoarse
screams. Also plainly heard was the sound of Johnny hitting the floor as Marco
rolled away, vomiting from the sudden white hot pain in his arm.
"Johnny? Marco? Oh, God! Oh, God!! Help. Oh, God!"
The blend of Chet's frantic please for help, the sound of Marco vomiting and crying in pain, the inexplicable sound of thrashing, and Johnny's gasping, pain-filled cries stunned the men above as well as the doctor and nurse into a momentary silence.
"Roy?" Cap's voice shook.
"Roy?" Brackett couldn't totally mask his fear.
Looking at the phone in his hand and the HT in Cap's hand, Roy didn't know which man to answer first. In a sudden movement, Roy held the phone out to Hank Stanley. "Take this, Cap. Tell Rampart what we know. Give me the HT. What the hell is happening?"
What followed next was a series of desperate conversations - all blending together to tell a gruesome story.
"Chet, what's happening?"
"Yeah, it's Chet, Marco, and Johnny. Roy's
trying to find out what's going on."
"Johnny's got something happening to his back. Maybe we should've left the tank on. Did we do wrong, Roy?"
"Hank, how bad are the injuries?"
"No, Chet, you've done - and are doing - fine." Better - and more - than you should have to.
"Chet's got a head injury. Some ribs, too.
Marco's got a broken arm. Johnny's trapped
from the top of the legs down by some steel
beams, been without an air tank since the fall,
bleeding from a cut on the head, been
vomiting off and on for hours."
"Okay, I know this is going to be hard, but you have to help the muscles relax. Get behind Johnny and push both his shoulder blades forward."
"I know, Chet, it's going to hurt him like hell. But you've got to do it. If you don't, the spasms will affect his breathing and his blood pressure."
"We've got an update on what's going on now,
Rampart. Johnny's having severe back spasms.
Seems the movement caused him to hit Marco's
broken arm. Chet's..."
Johnny's scream brought another silence to the group. Dixie grabbed Kel's arm. "Kel?" Her voice trembled as tears rolled down her cheek.
Cap kept the line to Rampart open as he addressed his paramedic.
Roy's HT clicked back to life. "R-ro-y? Oh, God. Johnny's out. The spasms seem to have stopped."
"His breathing, Chet?"
"Very shallow." Chet moved around to the side of Johnny and leaned down closer to Johnny's chest absently placing the HT by Johnny's mouth.
"Get him up, Roy. They gotta get him up." Kel was sweating.
"Prop him up, Chet."
"I'll do it." Marco's strained voice surprised everyone. Marco made a move toward Johnny but bumped his arm again. His renewed vomiting was heard by everyone.
"No, Marco, stay with me amigo!...Shit! Marco just went out, Roy."
"Johnny?" Chet heard Cap's question.
"I've got him. I'll sit behind him. He's up but still out. Please help me guys. Oh God, someone please help me. Please..."
"Chet?" Roy waited for a response.
"Batteries must have gone dead, Rampart. I don't know what to do here."
"How long before you can reach them, Roy?"
"Within an hour, I think...I hope."
"We heard, Roy. Look, you're doing what you can. I'm coming down. I'll be there soon. Hang tight, men, just hang tight."
Captain Stanley grabbed the phone from Roy. "Rampart?"
Kel gave Dixie a puzzled look. "Go ahead, Hank."
Brackett's mouth turned up in a slight smile. "You're welcome."
Brackett rubbed his forehead. His mind was spinning. Dixie patiently stood next to the doctor - her mind was moving at a mile a minute thinking about the gear they might need. She didn't have to be asked. She knew that he wanted her to go along and she wouldn't have it any other way.
"Dix, get us a trauma kit and a surgical kit." Pausing a moment, he added the thought that he hated to voice. "And, Dix, get us an in-field amputation kit, too."
Roy couldn’t help but to keep checking his watch. He knew Brackett
would be there soon and in the back of his mind he also knew what that meant.
If they couldn’t get Johnny’s legs out from under the beams that had him
pinned, a doctor would be on the scene to remove the younger man’s legs to save
Hank Stanley caught an expression close to despair on his senior paramedic’s face. “Roy? You okay, pal?”
“Yeah, Cap. . .” The blonde man looked at the debris laying about the area. “Johnny, Marco and Chet are the ones you gotta worry about.” He avoided making eye contact with the captain, as he didn’t want him to see that he was scared more than he had been on any other rescue.
A yell from a spot near the far right corner of the ruined home brought both men’s attention away from their thoughts.
“Captain Stanley! We’re through!”
Roy and Hank exchanged glances, then took off towards where the men were working. Elation turned to disappointment when they came upon the very small hole leading to the abyss below. It was a start, but both men had hoped this would be Roy’s chance to be down with his partner and the others. Unfortunately, the workers still had to be cautious in moving more rubble, so as not to bring more debris down on the men trapped below.
Roy turned at the sound of the ambulance siren behind him. As he watched it stop and Brackett and Dixie climb out, the paramedic sighed. Decision time was almost here. Could Brackett actually remove Johnny’s legs? And how much time would he give them to try to pull Gage out before he deemed it necessary?
Moving his shoulders carefully, Chet strove to relieve his
tense muscles without disturbing the semi-conscious man leaning against his
chest. Looking down, he couldn’t help but clench his jaw as the worry washed
over him once again. He didn’t know how much time had passed since Johnny’s
screams died away, but the uneasy quiet that replaced them was almost worse.
“Johnny? Johnny, you’ve gotta stay with me, here. Roy’s coming for ya, but ya gotta hang on.”
“R . .o. y?”
“Yeah, Roy’s coming. Just hang on, Johnny, hang on.”
The voice that had responded to his pleas was thin and weak, and Chet wondered how long his friend would be able to last. His heart constricted with fear as he faced the thoughts that plagued him. There was no one to turn to now, no one to call out to. The radio was dead, leaving him no link to the men above them. Johnny was mostly unresponsive, and although Marco was no longer sick, it was obvious that he was in a great deal of pain. Chet had convinced him to sit back against a block of concrete, and the Hispanic had been unnaturally quiet ever since.
As his gaze traveled from the bloodstained hair on Johnny’s head to the mound of debris covering the paramedic’s legs, Chet realized that his worry was quickly turning to dread. He shuddered at the thought of what might happen if the rescue teams were unable to remove the debris in time. It had already been hours since the earthquake had trapped them in the basement, too long for someone with hundreds of pounds of building lying across their lap, and Chet knew what the outcome could be.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a doctor or paramedic had to perform an amputation in the field, but ‘A’ Shift had been fortunate in the fact that they had never witnessed that type of rescue first hand. There had been several close calls of course. Once when a young man’s arm was caught in a machine and Dr. Brackett had responded with the crew, and another incident at a construction site. That time Roy had been the one responsible to decide if the construction worker’s leg would be saved or not, and only a last minute shift in the debris saved the senior paramedic from that choice. Chet hoped that Roy would be spared that kind of decision today. Visions of the energetic young paramedic forced to spend his life in a wheelchair, was almost more than the fireman could take.
Glancing over at Marco, Chet was suddenly conscious of the fact that they hadn’t spoken in some time. His friend’s tight-lipped expression caught him off guard.
“Marco? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Chet. I’m fine . . just thinkin’, that’s all.”
Chet didn’t reply, but continued to watch his friend closely. Maybe Marco was just thinking, maybe the same thoughts he’d just been contemplating. But something about Marco’s expression, the look in his eyes . . Unsure of what the problem was, Chet was certain that none of them were doing well. The fireman’s head pounded incessantly, and all three of them where having difficulty breathing, both from their injuries and also from the heavy dust that still filtered through the basement. Johnny’s strangled coughs had weakened, and listening to the strange sounds as he gasped for air was frightening.
As his mind worked over all the possibilities for rescue, Chet knew that there was nothing he could do but wait, and that simple fact was almost too hard to accept. Being a fireman meant that he was the one to help others. Being forced to wait for someone else’s help was not easy for the man, and he railed against the fate that trapped them there. Looking down at Johnny, he wondered how he’d feel if the man would die in his arms before help could reach them. Long forgotten prayers ran through Chet’s mind as he yearned for Roy to appear and rescue his partner.
The firemen continued their tedious task of removing the
debris, always conscious of the fact that three men were trapped somewhere
below them. Every movement they made was done with precision; carefully
orchestrated to protect the victims from further injury. If even one piece was
moved too quickly or in such a way that might start a collapse, the resulting
cave-in could kill the firemen they were struggling so hard to rescue.
No one was more conscious of this fact than Captain Stanley. As he stood next to the small opening they’d made earlier, he longed to push himself through the small aperture and find the missing members of his crew. But Hank knew it wasn’t to be that easy. Even now, as several crews worked together to widen the tiny hole, it was obvious that it could take some time before there would be safe passage into the basement beneath them. And Hank also knew that his friends trapped below didn’t have much time to wait.
Glancing over at Chief McConnikee, Hank was suddenly thankful that the man had stepped in and taken control of the rescue. Although Captain Stanley was fully capable of managing the operation, it had been an inner struggle to keep his emotions under control, especially since they’d lost contact with Chet. Hank was beginning to realize that he had a better understanding of the old adage: ‘A doctor should never treat a family member.’
Moving away from the house, Cap slowly scanned the area for his senior paramedic, and was rewarded with the sight of Roy sitting quietly on the running board of the squad. Dr. Brackett and Dixie stood beside him, a small mound of medical boxes stacked near them. It was the sight of one box in that mound of equipment that changed Cap’s direction. Turning on his heel, he quickly returned to his engineer’s side, the two men waiting impatiently for their turn to help in the search. Cap silently wondered if any of the doctor’s supplies would be used in time to save Johnny.