(Written March 2011)

Tyler missed death by a nanosecond as he took another step forward into the smoky haze and the floorboards behind him gave way, collapsing into the hungry fire below. “Great,” he thought, “an auto-extension.” Blazing flames leapt up from the cockloft beneath him, and Tyler quickly glanced at his partner, James, who was reporting the extended fire to the IC through the radio. Over the black smoke that was billowing out from the wide opening, he could hear instructions crackling through, heavy with static, “Unit 12-S to continue with primary—” Big burst of static— “3 victims confirmed present in area. No back-up in stan—” Dead signal.

For a split second Tyle rshared a look through the smoke with James, a look that conveyed grave mutual understanding. The heavy voice reverberated despite the roaring fire. They had to find three people quickly, on their own. Dispatching their vital back-up unit meant that there was insufficient manpower elsewhere. No one would be at their assistance. The fire was escalating.

“If anything happens we’re dead meat!” Tyler yelled, conducting a final axe handle sweep under a cupboard.

“No, red meat. This room’s clear. Let’s go!” —radio beep— “Reporting from Unit 12-S: No victims in A-side, now starting C-Side. Over.”

Outside in the hallway the situation was deteriorating quickly. The fire originally below them had auto-extended up from a number of rooms, and was advancing towards them in an erratic series of mighty leaps and bounds. Visibility was drastically reduced and time was running out.

“Let’s do one room each!”

“That’s against protocol! We have to stick together!”

“Do it! Three lives depend on us! Five minutes!”

Tyler forcefully pried open a door and quickly hinged a rope onto the knob to act as the anchor line. Low visibility, high heat upon entry— there was a definite risk of a flashover occurring. His eyes flickered around the room, his years of training kicking in, allowing him to analyze the scene with surgical precision. Punch hole in ceiling for vertical ventilation. Open windows for horizontal ventilation. Luckily, there was a window right beside the door— jammed, of course. “Every… damned thing… gets jammed… in… a fire,” Tyler swore, breath getting ragged. OK. He’d start with vertical ventilation.

He grabbed his TNT tool at the head, and, directing the pike pole of the other end towards the ceiling, gave it a sharp jab, and pulled down the plaster. Oxygen was starting to run low. Tyler felt the first symptoms of heat stress. He fumbled to force the adze end of his Halligan bar between the window and its frame, sweat filling up in his goggles, stinging his eyes. He repeatedly struck the Halligan with his TNT— God, when would this window open?

And suddenly, the window shattered of its own accord.

The sudden pressure differential that was caused by the abrupt opening produced an ensuing heat wave that almost knocked Tyler out of the building through the broken glass. As he took a difficult step back to steady himself, all of a sudden a thick ceiling beam crashed down onto him, catching fire, trapping him underneath with its dead weight across his gut.

There was no room for maneuver. Tyler tried to lift the beam off but it would not budge. Forget about the internal bleeding. The flames were slowly engulfing him, creeping up from his lower torso. He heard a shrill volley of high-pitched clicks. There was less than a quarter of oxygen left.

“James!” He yelled, voice as coarse as sandpaper. The fire was eating into him. There was no way James could hear him in another room. The radio was with James too.

Tyler felt his vision dimming. He felt a rising, painful heat in his groin. Sorry Martha, he thought about his wife, his beautiful Martha, I’d never get you a child after this. We’d have to adopt one instead. The flames were fading out. The TNT and Halligan slid from his hands. His head suddenly felt very light. Spasms shook through his muscular frame and he succumbed to a fit of seizures, foaming at the mouth. Darkness seeped in.

Do not go gentle into that good night… rage, rage against the dying of the light...” A distant voice welled up in his head.

Oh shut up Mr. Thomas… Tyler’s high school English Literature teacher prided himself on being a descendant of the Dylan Thomas— and so had forced Tyler’s class to memorise his each and every poem until everyone could recite at will.

“‘Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight, blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay.’ Tell me, Tyler, is that how you would want to die? You do know you’re risking this if you join the fire service, don’t you? Blinding sight, blaze like meteors. I advise you to consider your career path carefully.”

Tyler fumed at Mr. Thomas, who had the iciest, piercing blue eyes. Frail little Mr. Thomas, safe and warm in his baggy black turtleneck, had never been in a real fire before. He hadn’t felt what it was like to be truly afraid of death. He had never lost a loved one to a fire. So of course he, of all people, had the right to scorn Tyler and his ambition.

“Please, just go to college. An SAT score of 2100 can get you anywhere.” The class gave a collective gasp of surprise, and many heads turned towards Tyler, sitting at the back, Tyler, who was always invisible despite his hulking size.

“Don’t waste your life away by joining the fire service. It leads to nowhere. You know, be a professional or something. That should be the path for you. For everyone of you.” Mr. Thomas’ eyebrow twitched. He had a tic there, it always twitched, attracting even more attention to those blue eyes that seemed to bore right into you. “Now let’s go back to the villanelle— the second refrain, ‘rage, rage— ’”

Rage, Tyler! Rage against the dying of the light!

Tyler snapped awake. The light was intense, burning through his retinas. If he didn’t get the burning beam off him in time, his protective gear would soon catch fire. Then that would be the end. He twisted his head, cheek flat on the ground and, gritting his teeth, pushed against the floor to create leeway, but the beam was deadweight. Blinking away the sweat, he thought he saw a pair of eyes staring right back at him— piercing eyes that penetrated through the thick smoke—

No,” Tyler thought, “I would not die with blinding sight. I would not let innocent people die.” His gaze fell upon his TNT and Halligan. “Right there!” He grabbed the Halligan and forced it in the gap between the floor and the beam, levering it, pushing his feet, and simultaneously tugging on his anchor line. The beam had burned through to the metal core and had become significantly lighter. He gathered his last ounce of strength. One final push… and it was off!

Gingerly, Tyler righted himself up as a searing pain tore through his abdomen, ripping him apart. Blood rushed into his head and he felt like fainting again, but another shrill series of clicks jerked him back to the scene. He crawled slowly towards the person, who was having a hacking cough, and pulled him out from underneath the bed. Hoisting the bony, quivering body up on his shoulder, Tyler hurried out of the room and prodded back to one where a ladder company was situated at a window. James was there, escorting two wailing children onto a platform where they would descend to safety.

Tyler slid the man off and laid him flat on the ground, where he had stopped coughing and had slipped into unconsciousness. No pulse could be felt at the carotid artery and the man had ceased breathing.

“He’s under cardiac arrest!” Tyler yelled frantically, slicing through the man’s thick black turtleneck sweater with a carabiner blade. “We can’t wait for the ladder and the EMS. We must do CPR now!”

“Ok, let’s do it.” James extracted a barrier device to do mouth-to-mask resuscitation while Tyler placed his hands on his breastbone and began to do heart compressions as quickly as he could. He forced himself to keep pressing hard despite the pain and fatigue— this is professionalism. Every second counted in saving this man from the jaws of death. “Come on”, Tyler urged on in his mind, “Don’t die!”

The man’s eyebrows started to twitch. Good, that’s a sign of life. Tyler kept pushing harder. Just as the ladder returned, the man took a deep breath on his own— and opened his eyes.

The iciest, piercing blue eyes.

That bore right into you.