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Faith as a Grain of Mustard Seed…
Twenty-three year old John Gage stood next to the squad anxiously checking out his equipment one final time before he hoisted his SCBA gear onto his back. Beside him his twenty-nine year old partner, Roy DeSoto, was busy doing the same thing.
The first floor of the three story office building in front of them was currently fully involved; the point of ignition having been one of the back offices on the main level. The office supervisor had run up to Hank Stanley several minutes earlier and informed the Captain that there were still two men unaccounted for from two different offices on the second floor.
Unfortunately the only way in was currently engulfed in flames, and until Chet and Marco beat the flames back, there would be no chance of Captain Stanley giving them the all clear to enter into the inferno to search for the two men.
Time was growing short as the minutes ticked away, and instinct had Johnny chomping at the bit to get in there and rescue the missing men. He nervously adjusted the chin strap of his helmet as he bounced on his feet. He looked like a racehorse poised behind the starting gate, just waiting for the bell to sound and the gates lift so he could charge forward.
As Station 51’s two linesmen made considerable headway against the flames, Johnny’s senses heightened. He mentally went over the mechanics of rescuing a victim from inside a burning building. They were the procedures and rules that he’d had drummed into his head over and over again when he had first arrived at the Fire Academy as a young recruit, barely eighteen years old. His instructors had drilled him on these maneuvers to the point where he had actually begun to dream about them in his sleep. But it had all been worth it, because as he stood ready to head into the fray, he knew he was both physically and mentally up for the task ahead of him.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Chet and Marco had extinguished the flames from the entrance and Captain Stanley signaled his Paramedics to go in and do a quick sweep for the men. This was it … time to go in. This was where all that training would be put to the test.
As they ran by Chet and Marco, who had now advanced further into the building, the two linesmen nodded to the Paramedics in a mutually understood communication that meant, Be safe…Hurry up…God speed.
Johnny entered into the burned-out foyer of the building and flicked on his flashlight, tracking its beam to the staircase. Thankfully it had been spared the worst of the flames and remained intact. Roy took the lead as they hurried up the stairs.
According to the Supervisor the missing men were located in two separate offices: number 204 and 211.
The air inside the building was thick with black smoke and the two men made sure they stayed within sight of each other. As they approached the second floor hallway, they quickly came upon the first office. Roy paused and felt the surface of the door before he turned the knob. The door easily swung open and the two men entered inside, immediately heading to opposite sides of the room.
Barely a minute had passed before Johnny heard Roy’s muffled shout of success. He glanced over and sighed in relief as Roy gave him a quick thumbs-up, indicating that the man was still alive. As Roy hoisted the unconscious man over his shoulder, Johnny shouted over that he would continue on to the other office while Roy carried the first victim out of the building.
Roy nodded and gave Johnny ‘the look’ and handed him the HT. In that brief look, an entire conversation was exchanged. It entailed everything Roy would have said to him, if he had the time. Johnny nodded back and gave Roy’s shoulder a quick pat before he hurried out the office door, turning to walk further into the abyss and out of sight. Johnny lumbered his way along the hallway, his eyes slowly becoming accustomed to the smoky haze and the closed-in feeling that surrounded him, until eventually the beam of his flashlight lit upon the small brass plate with the numbers 211 engraved on it.
Like his partner had done moments earlier, Johnny placed his hand on the door checking to make sure it wasn’t hot. Once he was assured the room was not burning on the other side of the door, he slipped inside and scanned the room with his flashlight. There was no obvious sign of the missing man, so Johnny started checking under the desks and in the closet. Still there was no sign of his victim. All of his senses were now on high alert, his eyes and ears straining for any indications of another human in the room.
He had run out of places to search and was just about to check the adjacent offices, when his HT came to life and the tinny-sounding voice of Captain Stanley could be heard coming out of the speaker.
“HT 51, this is Captain Stanley… the other missing man has just been located safe and sound in the parking lot. Everyone’s out of the building…Get out of there now, John.”
Johnny lifted the HT to his mouth and acknowledged that he had heard the message and was on his way out.
He quickly began to back-track his steps as he made his way to the stairway. He couldn’t help but notice that the smoke had become denser and the heat more intense in just the five or so minutes it had taken to search the two offices.
As he approached the final turn in the hallway that would take him to the stop of the stairs, he could feel his gut tighten as a sick feeling formed in the pit of his stomach at the ominous glow he could see at the end of the hall. He slowed down his pace as he neared the final turn. His heart leaped into his throat, and his universe turned menacing, as he realized the flames had made their way through the ceiling in the hall below and had reached this section of the second floor, effectively cutting off his escape route. He retraced his steps backward watching the flames as they licked upwards along the wall like a serpent’s tongue flicking out in search of food.
For the first time during the rescue, his nerves were on edge and he had to force himself to pause so he could focus and push away all the distractions from the sounds, smells and sights before him. He needed to disconnect from his senses and the instinctive urge to panic. He had an internal conversation with himself, telling himself to calm down, reassuring himself that he would be okay. That allowed his mind to slow down enabling him to remember his training; going over, step by step, the mechanics of getting oneself out of situations like this.
Rule number one … stay calm and don’t panic.
Keeping one hand on the wall, he slowly made his way back down the hall and away from the flames. The entire time he was walking he was silently chanting a mantra inside his head, “Slow your breathing down, Johnny….left, right … left, right… one foot in front of the other…keep moving forward…. be aware of your surroundings... stay on the periphery and away from the center of the floor where it could be weakened or spongy…”
He continued on in this manner as he did a slow march up the hall in search of a way out. As he went along, searching for his lucky his break, he sent up a silent prayer to God to guide his footsteps.
As he was coming to the part of the prayer where he should utter Amen, his mind was suddenly transported back to a time when he was eight years old and he was sitting in his Sunday school room while the teacher read out a Bible story to her class. The words from the Bible came back to him, just as clearly as if Miss Tammy was actually standing beside him, whispering the words in his ear, “… If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing shall be impossible for you.”
Immediately, Johnny found himself filled with a renewed sense of concentration and resolve, and he changed his chant to reciting the Bible verse over and over in his head. As he groped along the wall, he never once allowed himself to consider that he wouldn’t find his way out. He had faith in his abilities to get himself out of this situation, but more importantly, he had faith in God, that He would show him the safe way out of the building.
Johnny never once gave up hope… not even when the alarm on his air tank began to sound… “Okay mountain… I command you to move... show me the opening. God, I trust you to show me the way out.”
As If on cue, he came to another turn in the hall, and suddenly out of the haze and choking smoke, a heavy metal door loomed before him. Pushing down on the bar, he shoved with everything he had against the door.
It was with a huge sigh of relief that he felt the door give way and swing open wide, revealing an extremely rickety old fire escape, and the world outside.
With a grateful prayer of thanks to the Big Fire Chief up in the sky, Johnny stepped onto the rusting metal platform and hurriedly descended down the flight of stairs. The fire escape ended about seven or eight feet off the ground, but that did not pose any real issue for Johnny. He was just over six feet tall himself, and so he only had to turn around and get down on his belly, slide off the end of the platform while grasping hold of the edge of the fire escape and carefully lower himself down. With his arms outstretched his feet were barely more than a foot off the ground. He simply let go of the fire escape with his hands and let his body drop the final foot onto the pavement below.
Johnny pulled off his face mask and took a moment to compose himself while taking in a lungful of air before he made his way to the front of the burning building. As he rounded the front corner, he literally found himself face to face with his more than slightly worried Captain. It would have been a toss-up to say who looked more relieved…Johnny or Hank Stanley. The two men stood in stunned silence for a split second.
At the recognition that his youngest crew member was standing safely before him, Hank’s face broke into a grin and he put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“There you are, John… We were wondering what was keeping you. You had your partner and I a little worried there for a few minutes, Pal,” he said.
As flippant as the statement sounded, there was no mistaking the utter relief in his Captain’s voice at finding his Junior Paramedic alive and well and standing right in front of him.
Johnny reached up and wiped the sweat out of his eyes and grinned. “That’s the problem with you guys, Cap. You just don’t have enough faith,” he quipped.
“By the way … It’s all clear inside,” he said as he loosened the chin strap on his helmet, sliding it back, leaving it to dangle down his turnout coat.
“I guess I better go over and see if Roy needs a hand,” he said glancing across the parking lot to where Roy had the man stretched out on a yellow blanket with an oxygen mask on his face.
Without waiting for an answer, Johnny gave a final wave to his boss and trotted off to help his partner take care of their victim.
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