By Marty P.
“It’s still hard to believe,” Firefighter/Paramedic Roy DeSoto peered down the hillside.
His squad mate, Johnny Gage, studied the terrain, “yeah, and it happened so fast.”
Eight hours earlier Chet Kelly stood in the locker room at Station 51, preparing for his workday. Shaving cream dotted his smooth left cheek. As he plucked his work shirt off the hanger, another man joined him.
He was in his early twenties, a stocky five feet nine, and had nondescript brown hair, cut in a military style. He had an extra uniform with him and exuded uncertainty. “Uh, does it matter where I put these?”
“Last one on the left is open,” the Irishman paused as the stranger slipped his clothing into the designated locker, perched on the bench, and opened a small case. With excitement, he pinned the shiny badge to his shirt, polished it and faced Chet. “Looks good, doesn’t it?”
“You’re the new probie!” Firefighter Kelly’s expression changed from curiosity to tomfoolery. “Man, you look so green you don’t qualify for our usual nickname, Boot, so I’m gonna call you Shoe.”
Before the man could retort, other members of the A-shift entered the locker room. “DeSoto, Gage, meet Shoe.”
“Welcome aboard,” Roy DeSoto shook the man’s outstretched hand. “I believe you’ll be with us for a month.”
“We better hurry,” Johnny Gage, stuffed his civvies into his locker and trotted out the door.
At roll call, Captain Stanley introduced the new man. “And this is Robert A…choo,” fumbling over the pronunciation, he awaited confirmation from the new recruit.
The fireman smiled at his superior, “It’s actually Achio, Ah-shu-o, but my friends call me Bobby.”
“Every station has a Bobby,” Chet Kelly interrupted. “I think we should call him Shoe.”
“Kelly, let him decide,” Hank Stanley’s stern expression precluded further comments. “Now, at 0900 we will meet in the dayroom. Headquarters has new procedures regarding debris flows.”
“You mean mudslides, Cap?” Kelly, the most talkative man, spoke up.
The captain perused his notes, “They have similarities. Now let’s get to work.”
He glanced toward Mike Stoker, the quiet engineer, “Would you show Achio the ropes?”
“I’ll take him under my wing,” Chet piped up, “he and I have already bonded, besides, at a fire he’ll be going in.”
“All right, but Marco Lopez will keep an eye on you two.” Captain Stanley dismissed the men and strode to his office.
At 9:00 a.m., the men gathered in the dayroom. All but Shoe had coffee cups in hand. The captain began, “Now as you know, wildfire season ended recently. HQ wants you to be aware of debris flows.” He saw Chet Kelly open his mouth and bulldozed on, “debris flows are similar to mudslides but collect solid material like boulders in their wake. They’ve been known to carry trees, cars and parts of buildings with them, too. Picture a mudslide and rockslide combined. They hit like a wall of concrete without warning. Areas which experienced wildfires are especially susceptible to them. Just like earthquakes, there may be waves of flows and they can be just as big as the first one, or bigger.”
“What are we supposed to do if one hits?” Marco Lopez looked as somber as the rest of the crew.”
Captain Stanley picked up a piece of chalk. “SOP says get out of the way. If you get caught in one, roll into a ball and protect your head. Try to stay as close to the edge as you can.”
The klaxons sounded, Station 51, assist Engine 69. People over cliff. 700 Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Timeout 0912.
Marco punched the door opener as Mike Stoker positioned himself in the driver’s seat. The engine and the squad raced down the road, Code 3.
The squad parked in front of Engine 69 as Mike rolled behind it. Captain Stanley was met by the other captain. “We’ve got three hikers down the canyon. We’ve located one; we aren’t sure about the others. This area was hit two years ago when the Santa Ana winds sparked a chain of fires. Not everything burned and it’s pretty treacherous down there. My men are readying ropes.”
Roy and Johnny were already attaching safety harnesses to their waists as Chet Kelly made his way to the squad, “Shoe, help me get the medical equipment out,” He opened compartments and pointed to boxes. Not that one, that’s the OB kit.” When the new recruit couldn’t handle anymore, his mentor picked up the remainder of the items. “Hold it,” he ordered the younger man, “we’ll load everything onto the Stokes’ basket.”
The rescue men from Station 51 paused, “What have you found, Bob?” Bob, a fireman from 69, pointed downhill. “There’s a teenager who’s been answering when we yell. All we can get out of him is that he’s hurt and he can’t see his friends.”
“Maybe we should have a hopper on standby,” Roy clenched the rope. “Cap?”
“Yeah, Roy,” the tall, lanky man in the captain’s helmet replied. “I already asked for another squad since we don’t know the extent of their injuries.”
“Good, that’ll help.” Roy tested his line.
Johnny passed by him, “I’ll go first.”
It didn’t take long to get to the victim. “How ya doing?” Johnny took his pulse as the youth moaned.
His grey t-shirt was grimy with dust and perspiration. Scrapes oozed on his exposed lower legs, where his shorts had failed to provide protection. “I tried to find Lee and Davis but I took a nosedive. My shoulder hurts and I feel sore all over. Lee wanted to show his girlfriend what a macho guy he was by getting a photo of him standing at the edge of a precipice. He and Davis went over when the rock broke off. Are they all right?”
“We’ll just check you over and get you topside. What’s your name?” Johnny gave him a reassuring smile, “I’m Johnny Gage. Me and my partner Roy are gonna take good care of you and don’t worry about your friends.”
“I’m Joe. Joe Harkins.”
A shadow fell across the victim’s face as Roy came into view, “Hi there.” He called up to the rest of the crew, “Send the drug and trauma boxes down.”
“I’ll go check on the others,” the dark-haired paramedic grasped his lifeline and rappelled further down the cliff side.
Roy nodded as he examined the lad in front of him. “You’re gonna be fine. We just need to get you out of here and to the hospital.”
“My parents are gonna kill me. They told us to stay out of the canyon,” the boy grimaced as the paramedic stabilized his shoulder.
The older man gave him a gentle pat, “I bet there will be consequences for what you did but that will be after they tell you how much they love you and are glad you’re okay.”
“Lower the Stokes.” He watched the empty supply line rise to receive the carrier for the patient and caught sight of another squad above him. He noted the patient’s vitals and his injuries on a piece of paper and put them in the boy’s shirt pocket. “I’ll try to check on you later.”
“Thanks,” he stopped talking as Roy guided him into the basket and anchored him in.
When he was ready, Roy let the crew know, and walked him partway up the bluff, “We’ll try to let you know about your friends later.”
“We’ve got him, Roy.” Chet and the new recruit grasped the wire basket and trudged up the steep incline.
The paramedic descended after spying his partner. Johnny was removing his handie talkie. “Haven’t seen the third victim yet.” The second boy was gangly and wore a scruffy shirt which read ‘State Wrestling Champ Wannabe’ and battered jeans. “He’s unconscious and his pupils are unequal. We better get him on a backboard.”
“Good idea,” Roy communicated with Captain Stanley and learned a helicopter had arrived. “’Copter’s here.”
“He looks like he’s going into shock, too.” Both men heard a faint cry. “I’ll investigate,” Johnny checked his harness and zoned in on the sound. As he traveled downward he felt drops of water on his turnout coat. “Just what we need, a downpour.”
Roy packaged the teenager with the assistance of Chet and Shoe.
“We’ve got him, Roy. Go help Johnny.” Chet informed the men above they were ready to move out. “Bellingham and Curtis from Squad 88 will take over for you.”
“Good, I’m sure he needs an IV. I’m gonna go join Johnny.”
“Roy, over here!” Johnny’s voice sounded urgent. He was thirty feet further down the canyon and the steady rain delayed the sandy-haired paramedic’s progress. “He’s out of it now. Guess he used all his energy calling for help.”
“Looks like he battled gravity and lost.” The adolescent was tall and muscled but his palms were bloodied, and his clothing striped red by his injuries. His right sneaker was missing and his ankle bone protruded through the skin. Johnny’s fingers prodded his abdomen. “Rebound tenderness right and left lower quadrants. We need to get him to the hospital and fast.”
They radioed for men to bring a litter and backboard as they bandaged his wounds and put a c-collar on him. In a short time Chet and Shoe appeared towing a stretcher. Chet slipped as they neared the paramedics, “I’ll be glad to get out of here.”
“He looks bad,” Shoe noted as saw the victim’s ashen face.
Johnny bristled, “You’ll see worse.” Then his tone softened, “Bobby, we never know what people hear. Remember that.” The newcomer blushed.
When the last patient was set, Johnny and Roy flanked one side of the Stokes while Chet and Shoe covered the other.
Suddenly, there was a roar and a cascade of movement erupted from above. Tethered, the paramedics and their victim hung on but the firemen assisting them lost their grip.
Shoe dove for the older man as a boulder came into sight, which narrowly missed both of them. Chet scrambled for something secure. He inched away from the trough and clung to a stalwart tree that survived the last fire.
At the same time, Bobby Achio struggled against the torrent of debris cascading toward him. Finding no out, he curled up, bent his neck inward and prayed for salvation. The flow surrounded him, tumbled him, and attacked him with wreckage. As the turbulent tide forked, his body went straight and he came to an abrupt halt.
Roy was calling a mayday. A flurry of activity followed as Marco, Captain Stanley and men from 69 came to render assistance. The final victim was hauled to the waiting chopper.
Hank Stanley pursed his lips, “tell me what happened.”
“Musta been a debris flow, Cap. Chet and Bobby got swept away.” Johnny reported. “One minute they were there and the next they vanished.”
The captain took in the sight of the sludge before them. “Everyone has to be on a lifeline. No exceptions. Captain James requested more manpower.”
“Last we saw them they were headed southwest,” Johnny stated, wiping his damp brow, smearing it with mud.
The captain contacted the workers above, “We’ll let you know as soon as we find them.”
The group steeled themselves for the worst.
Below them Chet evaluated his condition. His ribs hurt like he’d been slammed against a tree. He took a deep breath and cringed. “I’M HERE!”
“That’s Chet!” Marco accelerated down the slope. He was the first to reach his buddy. The Irishman was slick with mud and Johnny attached him to his lifebelt, “Are you hurt?”
“I whacked my ribs. Where’s Shoe?”
Roy evaded his question, “You’re going to Rampart.”
“I’m not leaving until I know how Shoe is,” the curly-haired man said with resolve.
His captain intervened, “Well, you’re not going to look for him. We’ll let you wait by the ambulance.”
“But Cap…ow!” The injured man acquiesced as the paramedics finished their assessment and okayed moving him.
By now everyone was muddied but they ignored the discomfort as they hunted for the other downed man.
Twenty-five feet beyond them, Bobby emitted a heavy breath. He was alive. When he touched his left leg, the pain nearly caused him to pass out. Must be broken. His head throbbed and something poked his back but he was afraid to move more. He heard rustling above and, knowing he would be hard to see, cautiously raised his left arm.
“There!” A voice cried out. “We’re coming!”
“Careful!” Johnny ordered as they proceeded to the injured man’s side. “Looks like you had quite a ride.”
“Yeah, I felt like I was in a centrifuge.” Bobby’s face contorted at the paramedic’s palpation. “I think I broke my leg.”
“Yeah, it’s your femur.” Johnny confirmed. “Can you tell me what day it is?”
“My first day as a fireman,” Bobby’s disappointment was evident to the others. “What a way to start my career.”
Roy probed his spine, “this branch can’t be comfortable.” He tossed it to the side and crouched beside the rookie. “You need to tell us if you can feel your extremities.”
“Give me a minute. My brain is still adjusting to the fact that I’m alive.” His eyes widened, “How’s Kelly?”
“Better than you are,” Roy updated him. “You’ll be riding together in the ambulance.”
His searching fingers discovered a broken scapula and lacerations on his forehead and right elbow. “He’s gonna be okay.”
Hank Stanley leaned over his medics. “Whatcha need?”
“Would you relay his condition and get authorization for an IV?” Johnny ignored the chagrin on his patient’s face at hearing he’d get a needle in his arm.
The handie talkie sprang to life, “Cap, Chet wants to knows how Shoe’s doin’ and how long you’re gonna be.”
The captain passed along Johnny’s information to his engineer.
It took time to get to Rampart but Johnny stayed by Chet’s side as they wheeled him into the emergency room. Joe Early came in to ascertain his condition. “Doc, I would be worse if Shoe hadn’t shoved me out of the way.”
“Shoe?” Joe squinted at the paramedic.
Johnny shrugged, “It’s a nickname he gave our Boot.”
“Boot?” Dr. Early returned to his patient. “Never mind. Now, take a deep breath for me.”
In Treatment Room 5, Dr. Kel Brackett palpated Bobby Achio’s spinal column and gave orders to his nurse. “How far down the canyon was he, Roy?”
“I’d estimate eighty feet, sir,” the young survivor interjected. “I think I’ll stick to roller coasters from now on.”
“You’re lucky. A couple of years ago a campground was wiped out and several people died.”
“Mind if I come in?” Johnny peeked into the exam room. The radio in his hand crackled to life, Squad 51, what’s your status?
“10-8,” The Los Angeles County employee notified the dispatcher.
10-4, Squad 51, Engine 69, man down 1523 Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Timeout 1348.
The paramedics left the hospital at a trot. They were almost to their destination when the call was cancelled. They passed the site of their earlier call out, marked by tire tracks. “Mind if we stop, Roy?”
They left the squad and traipsed to the rim. “They both coulda bought it today,” Johnny shuddered.
Roy silently agreed. “But they didn’t.”
“Yeah, and now Chet’s singing Shoe’s praises to everyone.”
“Well, it looks like he’s gonna be stuck with that moniker,” Roy said with a sigh.
Johnny wasn’t listening, “if the shoe fits, wear it.”
“That’s what I said,” Roy gazed at his partner.
The word his workmate used penetrated his brain, “what’s a moniker?”
“A name that suits you, like, Johnny Gage, Boy Genius.”
“Oh,” acknowledgement and pleasure flooded his face and he repeated the words, “Johnny Gage, Boy Genius.”
“C’mon, Einstein, let’s go back to the station and clean up.”
For additional information see:
Collins, Larry. “There Will Be Mud.” Firehouse February 2008: 56-63.
“Landslide and Debris Flow (Mudslide).” The Disaster Center http://www.disastercenter.com/guide/landslide.html
Click here to send Marty feedback
June 2008 Picture Stories Stories by Marty P.