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Authors: Earl Emerson

Vertical Burn

BOOK: Vertical Burn
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EARL EMERSON

BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Author's Note

Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Part 2

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Part 3

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Part 4

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Praise for
Vertical Burn

Preview of the forthcoming title
Into the Inferno

Copyright

This book is dedicated to the brave men who’ve been assigned with me on Ladder 3-C over the years: George Ramos, Jerry Travis, Craig Davillier, Greg Mejlaender, Mark Buck, Dan Bachmeier, Dave Iranon, Jay Mahnke, Matt Hougan, Ron MacDougall, Erik Lawyer, Chris O’Reilly.

He had never been more alone. Smoke and flames engulfed him in dizzying waves. The truest form of death, the knowledge that death is imminent and unavoidable, pressed on him from every side. Such fear sends a torrent of chemicals raging through the body, numbing every thought except concern for self.

—J
OHN
N. M
ACLEAN
,
Fire on the Mountain

We are all dead men on leave.

—E
UGENE
L
EVINE

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Because this novel was written over a period of three years, various sections of the narrative were created while the Seattle Fire Department was undergoing fundamental changes in equipment carried, staff, and operating procedures. The author has taken the liberty of leaving several anachronisms in the story. For instance, the novel has a Battalion 1 and a Battalion 1 aide, while the department has eliminated these positions. The novel operates with three-person engine companies while most engine companies in Seattle now operate with four firefighters via the NFPA two-in/two-out rule. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance the characters have to real people is purely coincidental.

PART ONE

LEARY WAY

1. I WAKE UP SCREAMING

When the lights came on, John Finney found himself admiring the arch of Diana’s lower back through her ribbed undershirt, admiring her supple thigh muscles as she swung her legs over the edge of the bunk and the way two hours of sleep had frizzed her chestnut hair. Her back was to him as she stepped into her boots and pulled her pants up over blue silk running shorts.

It was 0304 hours, June 9.

On their way out of the bunk room they passed evidence of Engine 10’s earlier departure: twisted blankets, pillows darkened with swirlies of drool, a set of reading glasses askew on a
Fire Engineering
magazine. Finney always turned his pillow over when they got a run in the middle of the night. He reached the hole just as Moore grabbed for the thick brass pole. In a voice husky with sleep and as rough-edged as Rod Stewart’s, she said, “I guess this is the most dangerous thing we’ll do all night, huh?”

“It’s a long drop,” he joked.

She wrapped herself expertly around the pole and vanished. They’d been bantering back and forth all evening, flirting really, and she was teasing him for warning her about the long drop at Station 10. Finney cautioned everyone. Two years earlier a sleep-addled firefighter let go of the pole ten feet too soon and woke up screaming.

By the time the bearlike captain lumbered around the front of the rig and climbed into the high cab, Finney had fired up Ladder 1’s diesel engine and turned on the department radio. Reidel, the tillerman, checked in through Finney’s headset. “Ready to rock ’n’ roll, boss.” Reidel kept at his fingertips an ample supply of the worst action movie lines. Finney grinned.

“How the hell could we possibly be the first-in truck all the way out on Leary Way?” asked Captain Cordifis.

“I don’t know,” Finney said. But it had surprised him, too. There were thirty-three engine companies and eleven aerial truck companies in Seattle, and at least five of those truck companies should have been dispatched ahead of them.

As they traveled north through downtown on Third Avenue, the electronic whoop of the siren reverberated off the tall buildings. Finney heard the familiar clinking of the alarm bells on the MSA air masks Moore and Baxter were donning in the crew cab behind him. Then, from the east shore of Lake Union on Westlake, he saw smoke in the northern sky. Lots of smoke. They had a good one. This was what Finney was bred for, fighting fires.

He glanced at Cordifis, who was putting a piece of chewing gum into his mouth. Bill Cordifis had been to the Ozark Hotel fire, where they lost twenty-one civilians. He’d been at the Villa Plaza apartments, where eight hours of fire burned more than two hundred people out of their homes. He’d seen a woman jump six hundred feet off the Space Needle. Smoke in the sky didn’t bother Cordifis any more than it bothered Finney.

Engine 22’s radio report came over the air. “Engine Twenty-two at Leary Way Northwest and Eight Avenue Northwest. We have a three-story warehouse approximately seventy by fifty. Constructed of tilt-up concrete. Heavy black smoke coming from the rear of the building. Engine Twenty-two laying a preconnect and establishing Leary Command.”

Captain Vaughn was riding Engine 22 tonight, and if Cordifis didn’t take command from him, he would be the Incident Commander until a chief showed up.

The building was set back from the north side of Leary Way, a couple of blocks north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in a neighborhood that was evenly divided between residential and commercial properties. When they got close, the smoke in the street forced Finney to slow to a crawl. He didn’t want to run over anybody.

Then the wind shifted, and it became clear that Vaughn had underestimated the size of the building by at least half. In front were several moving vans parked close enough to the loading dock that radiant heat would ignite them should the fire grow worse. But it wasn’t going to grow worse. They would go inside and put it out just like they always did.

2. THE GIRL WITH THE FAN

Although no flame was showing, heavy black smoke floated off the roof area, curled down the walls, and blotted out large portions of the street. As far as Finney could tell, nobody had approached the building yet. Engine 22’s crew was off somewhere in the smoke, probably looking for a hydrant. Standing in his thick yellow bunking pants and coat, the captain from Engine 22 was surveying the building and evaluating their resources. One engine company. One truck company. By now the street should have been swarming with units.

On the rig radio, Cordifis said, “Ladder One at.”

“Okay, Ladder One,” answered the dispatcher.

“Moore, Baxter,” Cordifis said, “get a door open. Reidel, follow me.”

After parking the ladder truck, Finney strapped on an MSA backpack and regulator with thirty minutes of compressed air in the cylinder. Then he grabbed a chain saw and a pike pole out of their respective compartments and approached the building, crossing paths with Diana Moore as she headed back to the apparatus. As the driver, Finney was almost always the last one ready. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“A fan. I got it.”

Baxter broke a large window in front of the building with the Halligan tool, the falling glass sounding like an armload of dropped plates. Captain Cordifis, who had been speaking with Captain Vaughn near Engine 22, turned and walked toward the broken window. “Supposed to be somebody trapped inside,” he said. “I guess a band practices in there all night.”

“Hell,” said Baxter. “We’ll never find them in that smoke.”

Near the front of the building the four of them, Finney, Cordifis, Baxter, and Reidel, were suddenly enveloped in a pall of smoke that made their eyes water. Cordifis began masking up as Baxter and Reidel, already covered, disappeared through the opening. Speaking to their backs, Cordifis said, “Tommy and Art, you guys go left. Find an exit for that smoke. John, you and I’ll go right. The girl’s going to stay with the fan.”

Cordifis was an old-timer who meant no disrespect by calling Moore a “girl,” or by leaving her outside to tend the fan. Finney hoped she realized that, but thought she probably didn’t.

Finney put down the chain saw and pike pole. He wouldn’t be needing them to search. Now his tools consisted of the small department-issued flashlight on a clip on his chest and the four-pound service axe in a scabbard on his belt, the axe no truckman was ever without.

Inside, Finney could see Cordifis’s lantern for about four feet, after which it vanished. He kept track of the captain through the Darth Vader sound of his breathing in the facepiece and the casual conversation they always maintained when they worked together. He liked to keep a leash on the captain so he didn’t get into trouble. Cordifis had seen better days and sometimes couldn’t keep up with the rest of the crew.

It wasn’t too many minutes before Finney heard the wooden-bladed, gasoline-powered fan firing up behind them, sounding like a small airplane. The racket would serve as a marker for their entrance point. They were searching a forty-five-thousand-square-foot building, but Finney couldn’t see past the end of his arm.

Department protocol decreed that fans wouldn’t be set up without hose lines in position, lest the additional fresh air being pushed into the building feed the fire, but Finney knew Cordifis wasn’t afraid to bend the rules whenever the rules didn’t suit the situation. Finney had worked under by-the-book officers before, and he would take Cordifis’s commonsense approach any day. At least Cordifis knew how to think for himself—a quality Finney valued in emergency situations. Once the fan was running, the air would clear and they could finish their search before their rescue operation turned into a body recovery. If it turned out they were fanning the fire, they would turn it off after their search was complete.

The building would begin clearing as soon as Baxter and Reidel opened an outlet for the fumes, preferably smaller than the entrance and near the seat of the fire. The structure would become like a balloon with a pinhole in it, smoke rushing out that pinhole. The technique was amazingly effective. Finney heard a second fan rev up and knew Moore had set it up in tandem with the first to generate additional pressure inside the building. Still, the smoke wasn’t clearing. What the hell were Baxter and Reidel doing? They should have had an outlet hole by now.

Finney and Cordifis searched a series of small interconnecting rooms along the front side of the building, and as they exited each room, Finney placed a piece of white tape diagonally down the outside of the door to signal that the room had been searched.

Even though they weren’t doing much more than walking, Cordifis was breathing with effort. Their PPE—personal protective equipment—weighed more than fifty pounds; when fastened, their heavy coats were as warm as Arctic expedition parkas. Just walking was a chore. Much as he wanted to move more quickly, Finney forced himself to adapt to the captain’s pace. There was no point in wearing him out.

They moved about in the smoke for five minutes before they both bumped into a high counter and found themselves treading on material that felt like gravel. Moments later, the smoke abated somewhat and Finney suddenly realized he was outside the building, walking on nuggets of broken glass from the window Baxter had broken. They’d circled back through the interconnecting rooms without realizing it. It was easy to do and embarrassing as hell.

“Where’s that damned fan?” Cordifis asked irritably, when he realized they’d screwed up. “This place should be clear by now.” Both fans were gone, as was Diana Moore. It surprised Finney. Usually you could count on her.

“You want to go back in and search, or do you want me to get the fans back?”

Cordifis’s reply was to head back inside. Bypassing the rooms they’d already searched, they moved along the front wall of the building. Minutes later, they found a door at the right corner of the building on the far side of a loading area. When Finney opened it, he was greeted by a long flight of descending concrete steps.

In the basement they found a huge subterranean space with a high ceiling and a floor of rough concrete. There was no smoke. By the time they’d searched the area, Cordifis’s five-minute warning bell was ringing, though Finney had two thousand pounds left in his bottle, a little less than half what he’d started with. Cordifis generally ran out of air before he did, but Finney was thinking this was too soon even for him. They would get fresh bottles together.

When they’d made their way outside, a ragged group of spectators in robes, T-shirts, and slippers were congesting the smoky area where Captain Vaughn had set up his command post. Finney grabbed a battle lantern for more light and two spare bottles off Ladder 1. He looked up the street for additional units but saw none. By now they should have had two chiefs—three, counting the safety chief. There weren’t even any additional engines on scene. What the hell was going on? Finney carried the spare bottles over to Cordifis and changed the bottle on his back while Cordifis spoke to Vaughn.

“But she was right there,” Cordifis said angrily. “She could have shut it off in two seconds.”

“You know that’s not the way we fight fire,” answered Vaughn.

“With the fan up, we’d be able to see something. What we’re doing now, this is like playing Pick Up sticks with our butt cheeks.”

“I’ve got Ladder Five going to the roof from the other side of the building. If you want them inside searching with you, I can do that.”

“More butt cheeks isn’t going to help. I want ventilation is what I want. I want those fans.”

Vaughn walked away. A chain saw started up somewhere, the two-stroke engine screaming as the crew of Ladder 5 cut holes in the roof. Cordifis gave Finney a disgusted look, while Finney shrugged out of his own backpack and laid it on the ground to change the bottle. Bill was right, as usual. This would be a whole lot easier with the fans.

Cordifis stepped around Ladder 1 and addressed someone Finney couldn’t see. “Hey, you bastard . . .” Finney missed whatever insults came next as Engine 22’s engine and built-in pump roared.

As Finney slung his backpack and tightened the shoulder straps, Robert Kub stepped into view from around the front of Ladder 1. He wasn’t the one Cordifis was giving a hard time to, for Finney could still hear Cordifis’s loud, angry voice.

Finney had come into the department with Kub, the only African American in his recruit class, and as with most of those he came in with, he felt a special bond toward the man. For the past twelve years Kub had been working for the fire investigation unit, Marshal 5, so he often didn’t arrive at a fire scene until the firefighting units were packing up to leave. Finney thought it was unusual to see him this early in a fire. “What are you doing here?” Finney asked, screwing his low-pressure hose onto the regulator at his waist.

“Dispatcher called me at home. There’s another good fire down on Othello, but I came here.” He wagged his eyebrows. “More potential.”

“Oh, we got potential all right.” Finney grinned, as he left Kub and walked around the nose of Ladder 1 in time to see Cordifis heading toward the building and away from another off-duty firefighter, Oscar Stillman. Finney knew Cordifis and Stillman were good enough friends that a greeting of “Hey, you bastard!” often served as an endearment between them. Just like every other big fire, this was turning into a reunion.

Stillman, who had nothing to do here but watch, turned around and flashed his gapped teeth at Finney. “God, how the hell are you, young man?”

“A little early to be up, isn’t it?” Finney followed Cordifis while Stillman tagged along behind him.

“I was coming back from my biannual Tuesday-night card game when I saw the smoke from Aurora. I was the first motherfucker on the scene.”

“You see any band members come out of there?”

“I ain’t seen nothing but this goddamn smoke. Thought maybe my first wife was in there cooking dinner.”

When Finney caught Cordifis, they donned their face masks and stepped into the building just as Baxter, Reidel, and Moore emerged, accompanied by ringing alarm bells. The trio told them they had searched along the left wall of the building and found only storage racks and empty rooms.

Diana Moore stepped up to Cordifis as he was pulling the straps tight on his blue rubber facepiece and said, “Sorry about the fans. The IC told me to put them back. I didn’t know what to do, so when I saw these guys through the smoke, I joined up.”

“Don’t worry about it, darlin’. You did right.” Finney thought he detected an amused twinkle in Diana’s eye at the word
darlin’
. He had to hand it to her. She had enough self-confidence to let things pass.

Finney was beginning to get a bad feeling about this building. Even though he could hear more units rolling up the street behind them now, he knew you didn’t find this much smoke in a building and then squander fifteen minutes without putting water on it. You found the seat of the fire as expeditiously as possible. You stormed in and you tapped it. Ninety seconds could make the difference between a tapped fire and a grounder. They’d already been here ten minutes. Engine 22’s pump was running, but the lines on the ground were not yet flowing water. So far, nobody had found the seat of the fire. Or any fire at all.

In a building this large there was too much space for superheated gases to accumulate. Finney knew that if those gases got hot enough and blended with oxygen in the proper ratio, they would ignite, and anyone luckless enough to be inside would be trapped in a flashover. In a house fire the rooms would go from two or three hundred degrees to twelve hundred in the time it takes to snap your fingers. In a place this big the higher temperatures would chop a man down where he stood. The body recovery team would find the soles of his rubber boots melted to the concrete floor.

BOOK: Vertical Burn
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