At this station, you got thirteen divorces out of nine guys, and one of them hasn't even been married.”
Fire Station 12 is in that part of San Diego where edgy cops travel in pairs and the boom and crackle of gunfire is common to the night pulse. South of Highway 94 and east of Interstate 5, in this old part of the city, you'll see more people on the streets at midnight than at noon. There are worse ghettos, but kids can grow up here, within sight of the ocean, and never learn to swim. A good job often means dealing drugs. Few people go to Southeast San Diego unless they live or work there. Yet there’s a funny thing. The firefighters at Station 12 haven’t been exiled, they aren’t here to be disciplined or because they lack the seniority to work out of a better station. They are among the best, and they chose this district because ifs busy and they get to use their skills. “It’s Disneyland gone bad," says one fireman.
Rogers says he doesn’t wish anyone the misfortune of a fire. But he grins. “We like putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
Albert lives across the street from Station 12, near the intersection of Imperial Avenue and Ozark Street. His ears are tuned to sirens, and his shining eyes watch the coming and going of the big trucks. He is eight and black, with a wiry body and a shy smile. He has learned that the firefighters have free time after the evening meal, unless they’re out on a run. That’s when he comes to visit.
“Little shit is getting to be a nuisance," says Fireman Joe Taormina. But he lets the boy wear his fire helmet and heavy coat. The guys are rough with him, yet kind. They’ve worked on kids his age. kids who have been beaten, stabbed, shot, raped, or pumped full of drugs.
Moped accident. Because there are only 17 paramedic units compared to the 40 fire stations in the city of San Diego, firefighters almost always arrive on the medical scene first.
Five out of six runs at this station are medical emergencies.
Dressed in Taormina’s turn-out gear, the coat reaching below his knees. Albert tells the firemen, “Okay, kids, you’ll have to move out of the way.” His gaze roams over the red trucks, the gleaming dials, the ladders and hoses. He tries taking off the helmet. “Hey. fireman, help me. dude.”
Taormina cuffs the boy gently. “It’s easy, dummy.”
Albert grins and jumps onto the back of the truck. “You guys ever play real firemens?”
I’d had a similar thought on my first run as a ride-along in a fire truck. With the sirens screaming and air horn blasting away. I hung on and couldn't suppress a smile. I knew it was someone's misfortune that caused this ride. The adult side of me knew. But sitting in the front seat of a fire truck, running stop lights, with traffic parting before us as we roared up Imperial Avenue, was every kid’s dream come true.
Before we reached the scene that morning, another engine company had the fire under control and we turned back. Though I would witness plenty during several twenty-four-hour shifts at Station 12, on that first run, I was still an Albert.
I suspect there is a certain amount of Albert in most firemen at Station 12, in spite of the grim side of their job. They ’ll tell stories about their eagerness to fight fires, how they trick each other out of using the hose. Captain Jody Rogers says he doesn’t wish anyone the misfortune of a fire. But he grins. “We like putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
Firefighters are tested regularly on upper-body strength.
Rogers looks like an adult version of a boy hero from Fifties television, wholesome, like one of My Three Sons grown up. He is short, cheerful, and tidy, with curly hair cut close and combed straight back. Though he is forty, he seems younger, a combination of being fit and having an exuberance for his job. Talking about fires, he leans forward a little, balancing on the balls of his feet.
“In a serious fire, a big guy will lose ten to fifteen pounds just sweating,” he says. He has me try on his turn-out gear, heavy yellow pants with wide suspenders, yellow coat that must weigh ten pounds, fire-retardant hood, a face mask for breathing attached to a tank on my back, and. finally, the helmet. It’s a cool morning, my first day at Station 12. but I feel hot and weighted down. I can’t wait to shed the outfit. “Imagine a high-rise fire,” Rogers says. “You've got on all the gear, you’re carrying fifty pounds of hose and running up twenty flights of stairs. After a day like that, you’re whipped."
Rogers pauses, listening to a dispatch call. Three high notes blast through a speaker on the wall, followed by a clipped female voice calling Truck 12 to a structure fire.
It’s for the fire that didn’t need us, and on the slow ride back, I notice how people look at the truck. Mostly the faces are open. Firefighters are part of the big uncaring system, but it’s clear they don’t have the lazy image of other public servants, the corrupt taint of politicians, or the heavy-handed stigma of cops.
The heart of Station 12 is the equipment garage, an area the size of a small warehouse. Three concrete bays hold several trucks, an ambulance, and in one comer, a gym. The rest of this old building with the red tile roof — dormitory, bathroom, kitchen and dining area, and a lounging room called the bullpen — could fit inside this garage.
Rogers opens compartments on the sides of the hook-and-ladder truck. "It’s a big red toolbox,” he says. There are chain saws for cutting holes in roofs to ventilate burning buildings, a device called "jaws” for ripping open wrecked cars to get the people out. There are stretchers, fiberglass splints, first-aid kits like giant tackle boxes, rappelling ropes, axes, hooks, 289 feet of ladders, and the big "stick ” an aerial ladder that telescopes up a hundred feet with a water cannon at the top. None of the tools is subtle, but then there usually isn’t time to worry about the fine points of cutting a hole in a roof, or forcing entry into a burning house, or tearing open a twisted car to pull out a bleeding person.
Joe Taormina, Mike Cabral, Lanny Grubb, Mike Thomas
While the hook-and-ladder truck goes out mostly to fires, the pump truck, also known as an engine, goes to every call in the district. Both trucks have a crew of four, captain, engineer, and two hosemen. Lanny Grubb is the captain on Engine 12. He is having girlfriend trouble, so he doesn’t talk much, but he’s a friendly guy. and it shows through in little bursts. When he introduced me to the crews in the morning, there was plenty of arm punching, hair rubbing, and "don’t listen to anything that guy says.”
Out of speakers on the station walls blares a woman’s voice so controlled it creates no picture of the person speaking. "Engine 12. Medical aid. Twenty-three-year-old female with grand mal seizure.” Once the address comes through the speakers, the men move. Captain Lanny Grubb and Engineer Carl Godden study a huge map on the wall, we climb aboard, the big door rolls up. and the truck roars out with the siren on — all in about thirty seconds.
Again, the traffic peels aside for us. Close to Southcrest Park, we find a block of apartments, dwellings as dense as a rabbit warren. Children rush out of doorways and yards. They grab each other and stare while the firemen slip on surgical gloves to protect against AIDS, grab first-aid gear, and hurry toward the address. The apartment is tiny. Narrow stairs lead to the bedroom and the stricken woman. The place is so small that I wait outside in the sun with the children. With all the firemen on the stairs, there is no room for the patient’s mother, either. Downstairs, the old woman paces. Her hands flutter in and out of pockets, rake through her hair, and massage her face.
All around me, the kids sway and fidget. One girl with a front tooth missing is concerned about having to wait outside. “Can’t even get to my own home." But the other children talk about the woman and her predicament.
"You know how heavy that woman is? Upstairs is the worst place.”
"Try having a broken leg upstairs." This leads to a debate about other afflictions. "Me. I’m too skinny for a heart attack."
Now the paramedic ambulance arrives. Because there are only seventeen paramedic units compared to the forty fire stations in the city of San Diego, firefighters almost always arrive on the medical scene first. The two paramedics are young, wearing gray jump suits.
They. too. think the stairs are bad. and they lift out of the ambulance a special stretcher. It’s called a “stair chair" because it folds from a flat stretcher into a chair shape, and a patient can be strapped in and wheeled down a flight of stairs like a refrigerator on a dolly.
With the medics inside, there is even less room, and Fireman Fred Ott comes out. He looks like Dennis Weaver and is a soft-voiced man. a swimmer who competes in police and firefighter meets. He says the woman’s seizure is over. She is exhausted and wants to be left alone. "We probably won’t take her to the hospital.” he says. "Happens a lot on seizure runs. Time we get there, the worst is over." Sure enough, in a few minutes the other firemen and medics are down, peeling off their rubber gloves.
Each morning, everyone chips in $4 to the “chow fund," which covers all but breakfast.
Back at the station, some of the men work out with free weights. The department has a mandatory fitness program, and the firefighters are tested regularly on upper-body strength as well as cardiovascular conditioning. Most firefighters are men. and the subject of women firefighters is a sensitive one.
This issue comes up again and again during my days at the fire station, and when it does. I see the anger, the stiff shoulders and necks. Mostly the anger seems rooted in concern for safety. If a guy passes out inside a burning building, he wants someone behind him he feels is strong enough to pull him out. The men at Station 12 want to be heard, but they think job status and chances for promotion depend on their words’ being anonymous. Some of the things they say:
"I never met a woman firefighter. Oh. I’ve met women who work here. You figure it out."
"They just don’t have the upper-body strength."
"The physical abilities requirements have been watered down so women can do it."
"Sure, you got your gorillas. Kick your ass in a heartbeat. But even them, what happens when they get older? Can you see a grandmother doing this?”
"They’re nice people Don’t get me wrong. They just don't belong here."
"We hate ’em."
"They don’t last in the canyon fires.
All that climbing up and down hills, they give out. Not only that, they’re built different. Their shoulders are too small and the hoses slip off."
"I think they hired the smallest ones. Don’t know why. Maybe for their looks. There are some who are four foot eleven. Think about that."
"We end up doing their work."
"I don’t trust them. They’re moody."
“Look, the city wasn’t going to get any federal funds unless they went along with this. It’s that simple."
“The women’s-rights people said it was great, high time. Wives of firemen said they didn’t want women in the station sleeping with their men. Both sides missed the point. It’s abilities. They can’t do the job."
But Jody Rogers thinks affirmative action has helped the department.He is the only fireman I met who wholeheartedly accepts women on the job. "I like having them around, he says. "In an all-male environment, well... people have both male and female elements in their psyches." And he trusts their abilities. When he worked out of the hazardous materials station in La Jolla, he had a woman on his crew who was so bright and able that he “loved having her on my crew.”
Only one woman works out of Station 12, on a different shift than do the men I spoke with. She said the issue is too hot to talk about.
The three high notes beep through the speakers, and Engine 12 is called on another medical run: an eighty-six-year-old woman is having trouble breathing. Our destination is a mobile home park in Encanto.
On the way, a young black man crosses Imperial Avenue in front of us, hands jammed into his pockets, taking his time. His lips twist down. Though the siren screams at him to move, he refuses to walk any faster. His hostility is palpable. We swerve to avoid hitting him.
The old woman is sitting in an easy chair in her daughter’s trailer when we arrive. She wears a slip and bathrobe.
Her blue slippers look too delicate against the white collapsing flesh of her legs. Her chest heaves with the effort to breathe. Fireman Peter Carl wraps a blood-pressure cuff on her arm. "Had this problem before?" he says. Her voice is tiny and scared. "Yes.”
As a kid, I thought growing up meant no longer being afraid to die. This woman is eighty-six and frightened.
In one corner of the trailer, a parakeet screeches. The old woman’s daughter, herself an old woman, answers questions about her mother's medical history. I hear the words “congestive heart disease.” While the paramedics ready their heart monitor, Carl works the little sensors in under the patient's slip and sticks them to her chest. Carl is young and tanned, a surfer, a reminder of the ocean in this dark trailer. Now he holds the woman's arm as the medic with an IV unit searches for a vein. The old woman crosses her ankles. I wonder if she always wears the slippers, or if she put them on for the occasion, dress-up slippers, trying to save a little dignity during the public spectacle of her old body winding down.
Outside the trailer. Lanny Grubb and a paramedic listen to their hand-held radios. Reports come through about lightning strikes in the East County. The two men compare radios, chuckling now and then, chatting about anything but the old woman inside struggling to breathe. Later, Lanny Grubb will tell me. "We’re not as sensitive as we should be. and it can be hard on the home life." He gives the example of a son or daughter running home with a scratched knee. "After the kinds of things we see, it’s no big deal. At least the leg is still attached. Or the kneecap isn’t torn off."
As the paramedics wheel the old woman toward the ambulance, she cries out for her glasses. Her daughter brings them. She leans back a little on the stretcher, able now, at least, to see.
The rest of the afternoon is slow. The guys joke about the pace, saying they might as well be working out of a La Jolla station. "Each district is unique," says Jody Rogers. In La Jolla, a medical-aid run will likely be for a heart attack. In San Ysidro. he says, “You get a lot of heroin overdoses. I don’t know why."
Downtown, more than anywhere else, the guys worry about contagious diseases like hepatitis and AIDS. Penasquitos has problems with cocaine and crystal meth. In Balboa Park, medical aid most often goes for the brutal results of gay men being beaten.
But in District 12, violence thrives.
The most common cause of death among young black men is homicide. Experts live here, experts at draining each other's vital fluids, whose tools are bullets and knives. The firefighters have gotten to know certain places here, and they don’t go into these "hot spots" until the police have gone in first.
Still, a lot of runs at Station 12 are mundane. One frequent call is for unattended food. Someone puts a pot on the stove, forgets it, and leaves. Soon the house is billowing smoke. In the station itself, though, food never goes unattended for long. Dinner tonight is salad, turkey enchiladas, and watermelon. It’s excellent. Each morning, everyone chips in four dollars to the “chow fund," which covers all but breakfast.
Whenever Joe Taormina is on duty, he cooks — "because I dislike it less than the other guys," he says. He is medium tall, muscular, and Italian looking. He moves around the kitchen with the grace you see in good boxers, slicing tomatoes, chopping onions and eggplant, slamming the big refrigerator doors, and peeking into the oven. Though he comes across as serious. I detect humor in him. And I suspect anyone who cooks as well as he does has to like it at least a little.
After dinner, the district is still quiet, and the men remain seated around the dining table. They love fighting fires. The next best thing is helping deliver babies. Yet the talk turns to the horrible things they see. The room has the utilitarian look you'd expect in police stations and fire halls, furnished only with the table and chairs, a fan, and a television. The men begin by describing general things, the typical emergencies, the cars wrapped around poles, the motorcycle accidents, the suicides, even the guy with his face blown off by a shotgun. I see a few grins. Some of the guys shake their heads. They all seem to have a certain wonder at the things people do to themselves.
There are the strange situations, too, like the time they tried to get a stroke victim in a full body cast down a flight of stairs. Because of the cast, he was rigid and couldn't bend around the comers. He had to be tipped on end and lowered with the same mix of brute strength and finesse that piano movers use.
Inevitably, the firemen tell about their worst moments. Ed Cardenas's worst time occurred during his first year as a fireman while working out of the station at Mission Bay. A young man and woman on a motorcycle had been drinking. They drove the wrong way on a one-way road, head-on into a truck. On the scene, Cardenas kneeled beside the young woman. It was dark, but he could see she wasn’t breathing. To get an unobstructed air passage before giving CPR. he needed to adjust the angle of her throat. Grasping her chin, he slid his other hand under her head, into a mess of blood and brain matter. Even now. years later. Cardenas shudders at the memory. He. too. talks about becoming callous. “You can't help it.” he says. He is a family man, and being callous is not something he is proud of.
There are gaps in the calluses, though, openings where the ugliness still gets through. Fireman Ed Cormode is a new parent. He tells about reviving a child born into a toilet from a fifteen-year-old mother who said she didn't know anything about it and denied the baby was hers. The oxygen equipment wouldn’t fit the baby’s face, so Cormode administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, despite the danger of AIDS and who knew what else. He says, “For a child. I’ll do it in a minute." To him. the personal risk was incidental, and babies are not.
To Captain Dan Flynn, handling the job is all a matter of preparation, a kind of mental adjustment. He says, “You walk around a corner, see a head laying there, it’s gonna shock you. But if someone tells you about it first, you’re not going to be so affected.” He also says, “If you see something enough, the shock wears off."
Carl Godden agrees. But even then....
He was involved with the PSA crash, he says, helping the coroners and managing to hold it all at a safe distance — until he saw the remains of one young woman.
He suddenly found himself facing the full horror of what had happened. It wasn’t because she’d been young, or pretty, but because of her hands. They had been perfectly manicured. That detail of her life broke through his defenses, spoke to him of little joys and daily rituals, the humanity of those who died.
Soon the talk in the dining area turns to the fires, as it will again and again during my time at the station.
Firefighters have ways to decompress from the grim side of their work, such as stress counseling or developing a protective dark humor. But nothing works quite as well as a fire.
“Best thing for a fireman is a good working fire.’’
“You can see the guys getting morose after going to enough stabbings and beatings, but give them a good structure fire, and they’re fine again."
"There’s flames and smoke. You’re hot and dirty. Man, it’s like winning a football game.”
“Sometimes you feel invincible."
“It’s better than surfing. A ten-foot tube of flames"
There's an involvement here, entering an old house so full of smoke it’s impossible to see. unable to find the fire, listening for it. feeling the walls for heat, sweating under all the gear, heart hammering at 150 to 200 thumps a minute, all this while wrestling a hose or heavy cutting equipment, wondering if anyone is trapped inside, and knowing that the simple act of opening a door could mean an explosion of flames. And the heat. Without a breathing apparatus, one breath of air heated to 500 or 1000 degrees can sear a pair of lungs irreparably. In that kind of heat, objects begin to burn spontaneously.
Firefighters in this city have a one hundred percent injury rate. That means everyone gets hurt sometime. Their profession is more dangerous than coal mining, which is more dangerous than being a cop. Maybe this is part of the appeal, working out on the edge and getting away with it because of their skills.
Lanny Grubb says, “There’s not a lot of jobs anymore where you risk your life. That went out with stagecoaches.”
For days after a “good fire," the guys will be cheerful. Even the burning smell stays with them. The smoke soaks into skin, hair, mustaches. Later, says Jody Rogers. “Your body gives it off. It’s like eating garlic.”
With no more runs that first night, the guys are fresh in the morning. They’ve had a full night’s sleep, an extremely rare thing. They say if it has anything to do with my being there, then, by God. I’m welcome back any time.
I return a few days later and ride on the hook-and-ladder truck with Captain Grubb and Engineer Ron Contreras, a quiet man with a thick cap of gray hair. He was head chef at Anthony’s in La Mesa before becoming a fireman. The two hosemen are Joe Taormina and Ed Cardenas. Our first run is a medical emergency, a sixty-eight-year-old woman with pain in her chest and her feet.
Albert and several other kids are riding bicycles on the station driveway. Lanny Grubb calls out, “Okay, kids, you’ll have to move out of the way."
We arrive outside a small house in an old neighborhood full of small houses and bougainvillea and picket fences. Inside, the woman looks up from a battered Archie Bunker chair, her brown body bent and frail, scalp visible through her hair. Taormina takes the woman’s blood pressure while Cardenas examines her feet with his big, gentle hands. When Lanny Grubb asks about any medicines she might be taking, she waves at the cluttered mantle. He finds them, a shopping bag full of little child-proof containers. He is kind as he asks her what they are all for.
“Arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, nerves" is the woman’s litany. Cardenas puts down her feet. He looks puzzled. “Where do they hurt?" he asks. The woman points to her instep. "Woke up with a sharp, shooting pain.”
The paramedics arrive and decide to take her to the hospital because of the chest pains. On the way to the station, Grubb says the old woman certainly has a lot wrong with her, but he thinks the emergency is that “mostly, she’s lonely.*'
For lunch. Joe Taormina makes tuna salad to stuff into whole-wheat pita bread. He puts out bags of chips and hunks of watermelon, then announces over the P.A. system, “Chow." When the guys are slow to respond, he announces, “Trying to hurt my feelings? Come get it.”
Again the afternoon is slow. The men go about their chores, cleaning the station and equipment, grumbling about the pace of the day. For dinner, Taormina serves chicken, an eggplant dish, baked potatoes, salad, and ice cream. Albert and his little sister show up, asking if the firemen are still giving away paper fire hats. By sundown, the guys are doing a lot of head shaking. They’ve seldom seen the district so quiet. I decide to go out with the paramedics.
Because there are only seventeen paramedics in the city's system, each ambulance covers a huge area. One of them is based at Station 12. but it’s almost always out. While he firemen say they sleep an average of ten percent of the night, the medics here claim to sleep only about one percent of it. The driver. Rick Burger, is eating a bowl of ice cream when the call comes through. “Young black man, in custody, trouble breathing.” Burger says, "Shit! Twelve runs before midnight." He glances at his half-eaten ice cream, then grins. “Worst is yet to come.” he says. "Around here they get crazy after dark.” His partner, Neal Harris, has been trying to squeeze in a shower between runs. He rushes out with his hair still wet. I sit on a fold-out seat behind the driver. Within seconds, we race into the night.
We arrive on a dark stretch of Imperial Avenue in Encanto. the scene lit by the swirling lights on several police cars. On the sidewalk stands a circle of cops, a Stonehenge of pressed khaki, and inside the ring of shining shoes lies the young man with his cheek and bare chest against the concrete. He has on dirty Reeboks and black jeans. His hands are cuffed behind his back, a cop sits on his legs, and his breathing sounds horrible, a deep, rasping sound like a saw cutting through sheet metal.
Neal Harris shines his flashlight into the young man’s eyes, then along the inside of his arm. “Eyes dilating. No needle tracks.” He listens for a while with the stethoscope, then stands up and says, “I think the bad breathing is an act.” The cops agree. Earlier, the young man held his breath long enough to worry them. Now the hoarse breathing stops and the young man lunges up. The one cop struggles to hold his legs.
The black man cries out, “Where’s my mama?” He bucks and kicks for a moment. His eyes are half shut. “Off my legs, motherfucker.”
The cop holding the guy's legs is young, too. He looks embarrassed. A crazy Alice in Ghettoland dialogue follows.
“Off my legs, motherfucker.”
“Can’t do that.”
“I’ll kick your ass. My strength comin’ back. Kick all your asses. I will.”
“Like to see you try."
“I want my mama."
Harris kneels again, holds up the young guy’s head. “What are you on?" he says. No answer. Harris has blond curls, pale skin. The two of them on the ground look like the black and white dogs in the whiskey ad. “What are you taking, man?"
"I’ll kick your ass. whitebread."
Harris stands, asks the cops what they think. They shrug. Maybe take him downtown to the drunk tank. He smells like booze But who knows, he could be on anything. They’d stopped him because he sideswiped another car and ran. Then he became abusive and worked that into throwing a few punches.
The hoarse breathing starts again, and Harris and the cops reach an agreement. The guy should go to the hospital. With a quick motion, the young cop straps the black man’s feet to the handcuffs behind his back. He is lifted to a stretcher and slammed into the ambulance.
I ride in front with Burger. He looks amused. In the back, the young cop and Neal Harris ride beside the black man. They, too, are getting a kick out of him. He is shouting continuously now, everything from threats, to calling for his mama, to bragging about the size of his penis. Suddenly, in a small voice he asks, "Where we goin*?"
When he hears “hospital." he lashes his head in denial. He is face down on the stretcher, hands and feet bound behind him. but telling the world he won’t go. “I'll kill my motherfuckin’ self b'fore I go to that white man’s world."
At Physicians and Surgeons Hospital on Twenty-fifth and Island, his curses bounce off the walls of the entry hall as the medics wheel him in. A derelict in a shredded jacket opens the swinging doors to the emergency room. Heads turn.
There are city cops, sheriffs, and private cops here. A lot of police work lands at this hospital. I see brisk nurses in their middle age, several guys out of the ranks of the downtown homeless, a Chicano gang member. After the medics lift the young guy from the stretcher to a metal bed. Harris tries to calm him. The curses intensify. People peek out of doors, around curtains. Every face is turned his way, staring, as if the volume of his voice has caught them, holding them until something pops. A nurse rushes by me.
She is blond, short, and tough, wearing a lab coat over her own clothes. "I won’t have this filth," she says.
“You’ve got to stop this." She stoops, face to face with the young man. "You work with me. I’ll work with you." In this way. she finally calms him down. Later she will tell me, “I’m a mother. I have three good kids.”
The last I see of the young black man. he is calling softly for his mama.
So far. all the paramedics I’ve seen are young. "It’s the burn-out." Rick Burger says. “You don’t last long on this job." They see death on every shift, and the crazy, sad results of human neglect. Neal Harris tells a favorite story.
He'd been called out for a heroin overdose and arrived at a small apartment where a dozen people sat watching television. None of them moved or responded to his questions. The only light came from the TV. *it was eerie." Harris says. “All those blank faces.
Every one of them loaded." Finally, someone pointed to a guy lying on the floor. The man had stopped breathing. Harris says, “While we were working on him. I looked up. The people in the room were still trying to watch TV. craning their necks to see around us."
Though it is a quiet night again, I find myself sleeping poised, in my curtained cubicle in the dormitory, waiting for the three high notes through the speakers and the dispatcher’s cool voice. In the morning. I feel as though I haven’t slept.
Shortly after lunch on my third day at the station. Grubb hears over the radio about a canyon fire east of us. The pump truck heads out. Though the fire isn’t in District 12, Grubb figures we’ll be called in if it goes to a second alarm, so we might as well move a little closer.
Already, there have been plenty of false runs — a fire in the basement of a house with no basement and no fire, just an extension cord that got hot; a burning house that was only a guy smoking out bees; an apartment complex with a ringing alarm that turned out to be a prank. On this quiet run. in which we stop at all the traffic lights, a real fire seems unlikely. Then I see the fat column of smoke in the distance.
The smoke is gray and pink, billowing straight up until the wind bends it to the east. Grubb thinks we’ll be called in. Parked opposite a liquor store on the edge of District 12 on Federal Boulevard, we wait with the engine running. Grubb and Contreras, the driver, eat sunflower seeds and spit the shells out the window.
It looks like fidgeting, substitute smoking. I check in back, see Taormina and Paul Alvernez cracking seeds too. Soon the call comes through. We take off with the siren screaming.
We race through a neighborhood next to College Grove, passing houses built in the Forties, and within minutes we pull into the schoolyard at Marlowe Elementary on an edge of the canyon. Several trucks are here, pumps growling, hoses lying everywhere. Firefighters in their yellow gear and helmets work the sides of the canyon, some of them laying out more hose, others blasting away at the fire with their jets of water. This close, the smoke is alive, boiling. Fifteen-foot flames dance and crackle. Before we can climb down from the truck, the battalion chief rushes up and directs us to the other side of the canyon. We race through the neighborhood again to get there.
Contreras drives the truck over a curb, onto a grassy area. Another fire engine is already here, hooked up to a hydrant and pumping water into the canyon through a big hose that is taut with pressure. The men on Engine 12 are alert. They like this. On an earlier run, Paul Alvernez hadn't worn his ear protectors — a device that looks like headphones — because the headband would mess his hair. Now there's no question about strapping on his helmet. Each of the four men shoulders several fifty-foot lengths of hose and trots down the slopes of the canyon.
It's a big canyon, a rugged gulf with clumps of thick brush. When the fire hits these clumps, it consumes them with a roar, getting oohs and aahs from the spectators in the schoolyard. By now a news helicopter swoops and clatters overhead. Kids run along the canyon edge, shouting across to each other as though it’s a party. But one woman isn’t enjoying the picnic. She stands on top of her house, frantically wetting down the roof and yard with a garden hose. The wind is pushing the fire toward her, and it is only twenty yards away.
The guys from Engine 12 hook into a splice coupling on the main hose already there, lay out their sections of hose, attach the nozzles, and soon they are blasting away at their flank of the fire.
The fire is surrounded.
Water leaves the hoses with such force it can arc across whole sections of canyon, rip off branches from bushes, push dirt ahead of itself, chew up the mud. Close to the nozzle, the stream looks solid, like a bar of aluminum. With half a dozen hoses going, it doesn’t take long to beat back the flames. But it's an uneven retreat. Little pockets of resistance flare up and have to be pounded down. The jets of water sweep back and forth until no more fire shows, and still the smoke blossoms out.
Gradually even that thins, until there are only little wisps rising like ground fog here and there.
Now yellow-suited firefighters scramble all over the canyon, their shovels stirring up the smoldering spots, their hoses firing away at the rubble. Young boys venture down the slopes to
look and smell and touch. Two boys find a twig still burning. They throw rocks at it until the tiny flame dies. Another boy points out grasshoppers still jumping in a charred area.
Other small groups descend. Among them are two young men in ties, with guns and handcuffs on their belts, arson investigators. They are clean-cut and brisk, yet friendly. One tells me they wear guns because, “We find the guy, we shoot him." They laugh and keep moving, following the path of the fire until they find the remains of a little camp. One investigator says, "A lot of canyon fires are started these days by cooking fires. The homeless, you know."
Finally, it’s over. The men from Engine 12 work their way back out of the canyon, picking up hose as they go. Walk a few steps, loop some hose over the shoulder, take a few more steps, loop more hose over the other shoulder, until each man carries several lengths. At thirty-two pounds a length, it’s a load. They lay out the hoses on the street, rinse them, and fold them into their slots on the truck. Lanny Grubb takes off his heavy coat. His shirt is soaked with sweat. Taormina’s face drips. At the curb, a boy floats a boat on the run-off from the hoses.
The crew has one last thing to do. In the schoolyard, paramedics check their blood pressure and pulse, a requirement after every multi-alarm fire. I overhear Lanny Grubb’s reading. Forty-six years old. he has the blood pressure of a much younger man, this after running around the canyon in heavy clothes. In a way. these firefighters are athletes, and the department’s mandatory fitness program is no different from the coach keeping his team in shape. Even the good feeling here in the schoolyard, the jokes and easy body language, the replay stories, remind me of a bunch of guys after a good softball game.
Back at the station, Taormina starts dinner — salad, linguini with clam sauce, garlic bread, and watermelon — then hunts for his sandals. He finally finds them under the rear wheels of the hook-and-ladder truck. Beneath thirty-five tons of truck, the rubber sandals have taken on a perfect tread pattern that looks permanent. He suspects Mike Thomas, the engineer from the other crew. But Thomas remembers once finding his bed hoisted up into the hose tower. He suspects that Taormina was responsible for that. The stories about pranks are endless. Jody Rogers says, “We re not childish, just childlike.
There's a difference."
But the play stops for these men in one area. In their profession, marriages suffer high casualty rates. Paul Alvernez, at twenty-two the youngest fireman I met, says he’ll never get married. “What’s the use?" He does some counting and says, “At this station, you got thirteen divorces out of nine guys, and one of them hasn't even been married.” He grins and shakes his head.
"Just wait,” says Joe Taormina. "You’ll get your turn."
Lanny Grubb, with three divorces behind him and the trouble with his present girlfriend, thinks the problem is fundamental, a lifestyle conflict, a clash between the trivial and the horrendous. He says. “You leave home during a little argument with your wife. After twenty-four hours dealing with life and death, you go back and she’s still working on it. You’ve forgotten all about the fight. It’s the last thing you’re thinking about."
Everyone else has his theory, too. They range from infidelity (“Wives have all that time to be out messin’ around") to loneliness because of the hours (“Some women don’t like sleeping alone that much”).
Three notes blast through the speakers, and the runs begin again. I see the crowded dwellings, hot apartments with doors open, people leaning on balcony railings, young men and motorcycles.
And the children. One call was for a kid who got into bug spray. Another one wouldn't wake up. Other kids stare at the trucks. Some have to be reprimanded for getting underfoot. Mostly the emergencies are minor, until we get a call at one in the morning.
The dispatcher’s voice is precise, unemotional, calling Engine 12 to attend an unconscious man. “not breathing, possible heart attack.” I have no trouble rolling out of bed. I hadn’t gotten to sleep since the last run a half-hour earlier. Out in the garage, Grubb and Contreras study the wall map and we’re off. It’s too late for Albert to watch us leave, but the night is warm, and from my seat on the truck I see plenty of people on the streets. When we turn off Euclid Avenue into a dark neighborhood. Contreras cuts the siren. No need for it here. The diesel growl bounces off the little houses. Grubb works the spotlight and finally picks out the address.
The front porch sits behind heavy screen and thick iron posts. A middle-aged man looks out. He seems surprised to see firemen and hesitates for an instant. I remember Lanny Grubb saying earlier that if you treat a survivable heart attack in the first minute, the victim has a ninety-eight percent chance of living, but only seven minutes later, his chances are down to two percent.
Revolving lights on the ambulance and fire engine flash across windows and silent houses. People begin to drift down the street. The man turns several locks to let us in.
The living room is tidy and comfortable, with the worn-in look that comes from years of living in a place. At first I think the dispatcher made a mistake, that the emergency is the heavy woman wailing and sobbing so hard she can barely breathe. But the man shows firemen and medics into a bedroom.
A black man. maybe twenty-five years old. lies on the floor, dressed only in a pair of slacks. It is the homeowner’s son. In a flurry of precise activity, Taormina begins pumping the son’s chest, the medics hook him to the heart monitor. Alvernez positions breathing gear on the inert face.
“Looked in on him," the father says. "Too quiet in here, so I looked.”
Grubb asks. "When was the last anyone saw him up?”
“ 'Bout eleven.”
“How’d he seem?”
Kneeling beside the young man, Taormina keeps pumping. Lean into the push, rock back. He uses the weight of his body, palms flat on the man's chest. Lean in, rock back. His pace is steady and rhythmic.
Contreras holds up a plastic IV bag, but the medics can't find a vein. No way to tell how long the man has been down. If Taormina stops for an instant, the impulse on the heart monitor goes flat.
As he pumps, the man's belly swells from the pressure, then flattens. A bare foot rolls back and forth with the rhythm. The body has a looseness, a flaccidity that looks unnatural, no life tension under that smooth skin.
When the police arrive, Grubb gives them a small shake of his head. I hear the mother moaning. The crews lift the body onto a stretcher, wheel him through the house, down the driveway. Taormina keeps pumping. He is partly up on the stretcher too, beginning to look tired, but working that chest as they slide into the ambulance.
On the way to the hospital. Lanny Grubb says it’s probably a drug overdose. We wait for Taormina in a hallway outside the emergency room. Grubb flirts with a pretty ambulance driver. A short time later, a tired doctor says the man is dead. Grubb smiles at his pretty driver, making racy small talk. I understand.
The woman is warm and alive. After twenty years of grim nights. Grubb has a system that works. It’s simple: won’t do any good to take on the pain of all that he sees.
When the three high notes wake me later, I am surprised. This time I had been sleeping. I didn't think I would. I look at my watch. Five in the morning. The cool voice through the speaker calls Engine 12 to a medical emergency.
The crew looks bleary as we roll out. With no traffic around. Contreras drives without the siren. We make a turn that looks familiar, then I recognize a porch behind heavy screen and iron posts.
We’re back where the young man died earlier.
A crowd stands in front of the house. The trunk’s rotating beacon spins red light across their faces. They stand without movement. Their silence is brooding and heavy.
The crew scrambles down. The ambulance arrives. A young man, a brother, can barely breathe, apparently so overcome with grief he can’t draw air into his lungs.
As we head back to the station, I wonder what Albert would think about this.