I first felt it nearly twenty five years ago. A glow in the distance, cold wind snapping through the tiller cab, not needed to keep me awake, the promise of fire in the distance got my heart pumping. A tillerman on the Providence Fire Department heading toward a two alarm fire in the middle of a cold winter night is the King of the World. Everything is in focus, the rear of the ladder truck your only responsibility, the wheel in your hands keeping you grounded. Three triple deckers burning, high tension wires falling to the ground. The first fire building let go, the front of the building collapsing in front of Engine 12, cutting off their water supply. A forth home ready to ignite, the vinyl siding already melting to the ground, the family who lived there running out the front door. Me and Danny Brodeur taking a 2 1/2’ attack line from the rear of Engine 7, Carl Richards at the pump squeezing a little more water out of the overburdened pump so we could save the exposure. Lieutenant Healy, standing in the loft of the third fire building before the smoke had cleared, looking toward the east, simply stating “we’ll be here at sunrise.”
The same feeling returns, again and again, this time years later, in the loft of an abandoned home on Bowen Street, me and Peter Sperdutti, heavy fire, a window and a charged 1 ¾ line. Two other houses burned on either side of us. I was on my third pack, just about spent, as was everybody else on this Memorial Day afternoon. It was us or the fire. The fire lost.
Me and Chris Lisi on the third floor of a filthy tenement on Smith Hill. A woman called because her husband was sick. He took his last breaths as we walked into their apartment. We strapped him onto the stair chair and hauled him out. I called for back-up, Engine 7 could be heard in the distance as we put the man on the stretcher and started CPR. I sat in the captain’s chair and watched the guys work, IV, 02, ekg, epi, atropine, check pulse, epi, atropine…all the way to the ER. They had a pulse when we left. When things quieted down I looked into the back of the rescue, recalling the effort just put forth and felt it again.
A guy with two bullets in his head, still breathing, fighting, dying. We did our thing, got him to the trauma room. He’s still alive. I wrote about it and posted the experience on this blog. A few days later, the patient’s sister left a comment after reading the post, thanked us for a job well done and let me know her brother was still alive, still fighting. That same feeling returned, stronger than ever.
I am not a religious man. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny. I’m not sure of the existence of God. All that I’m sure of is what see and feel. The things I’ve seen in twenty five years make it difficult to believe in much of anything. What I’ve felt is a different story. When surrounded by chaos, my life and the lives of others relying on how we respond to the challenge before us an indescribable calm takes over. It’s as if the rest of my time is spent merely existing, it’s when when crisis hits and the outcome is in question that I truly feel alive.