Monday, May 28, 2012

Everyday roulette.

My friends are healing. I cannot begin to describe how horrific it was when the first notifications came in via email, message, the news, last night that there were significant firefighter injuries at the fire at Walker Church. I know the building, had been inside it several times for smells and alarms. Last time we explored it, I told my rank firefighter that, if ever we returned for an actual fire, once we ensured the congregation and workers were safely out, there was a VERY minimal window of permissible risk in chasing fire in the mighty arched rafters. Lightning strikes hit the tops of churches, and the fires can burn far above the reach of our equipment. We are trained and conditioned to make our way into the building and toward the seat of the fire. When the civilians have been accounted for, the only thing we're risking when we try to save the property is our own lives.


It is a glorious, historic beautiful old building that houses a wonderful, deeply involved community and congregation. True enough. But: once the lightning has started a fire at the roof line, we are looking at a losing prospective battle. Too much vaulted space, too much open air and old, dusty beams, too much concealed space in the rafters. We CANNOT go back in time. We CANNOT overtake what's already started ahead of us. We CANNOT defeat nature and physics with our heroic dispositions and noble helmets. When we forget these cannots, we put ourselves at jeopardy.

I was supposed to be working yesterday. I traded the shift with the opposite shift captain. That's how we make travel or family plans work with our schedules. We rely on each other. I got the info about the fire, then within minutes, about the injuries. I knew who was inside, and I knew how bad the building was. I didn't know who was hurt or how badly. The powerlessness & worry were nauseating. I was up half the night, staring at my phone. My crew. My co-workers. My friends. We have no control over when fires or catastrophes will occur, and we accept that it's the luck of the draw. But, being 1500 miles away, unsure who was hurt or how badly, knowing it was my crew, my rig, my shift... The guilt and responsibility were ghastly.

There are many cliches bandied about with this job. 'We know the risks.' 'Part of the profession.' 'You/we signed up for it.' Blah, blah, blah. Very few of the risks are worth it. Most are truly avoidable or minimizable. The very essence of unpredictable hazards is the same thing that OUGHT to remind us to take a steely, dispassionate, cynical approach.

We will will risk a lot to save a lot. We will risk a little to save a little. Life, property, environment--in that order. Once a structure is free of civilians (or there is no survivability profile), the only humans at risk are those of us assembled to address the incident. The lightning-struck church is ALREADY damaged. The majority of such church fires have a predictable outcome: catastrophic damage and high danger for firefighters. Even when we are pulled out to fight from the exterior, the massive roofs collapse, blowing the stone walls fifty or sixty feet into the so-called safe zone. Many firefighters have been hurt and killed in the collapse zones.

The news gave it short-shrift: 'Non-life-threatening injuries.' 'All are all right.' 'Five firefighters were taken to the hospital but the hole in the neighborhood where this magnificent church stood will not be filled for years.'
The burns hurt. They will require painful treatment. They will scar. Their hands will never be the same: skin damaged, discolored, sensitive to weather and elements--or, nerve damaged. For the captain working for me, burns to face, neck, shoulders, arms, flank--weeks if not months in the hospital and then the painful debriding and healing process. 'Not life threatening.' Perhaps. Life altering, certainly.

I don't want to be maimed or die in a fire. I don't want to get hit by a car while responding to a freeway collision. I don't want a rail car or propane tank to explode and vaporize me. I don't. I recognize the hazards of the job. Most of the time, we are safe, or safe enough. And that suffices. Other times, such as now, the thin line between good luck and no luck are all too visible. Our frailty and powerlessness are terrifying. There are times I want to walk away. Let others play these foolish odds...I'm going home.
I should have other career options, right? There are safer ways to make a living, certainly. Yet, my every shift reminds me that, whether the dice be cast already, we certainly don't know when our time is coming. I see the deaths, life-altering 'accidents,' near-misses and just-naileds: hard to say there's a reason or a rhyme, just the wheel spinning away.

I was a teacher before I was a firefighter. From 1990-1994 I worked at two different (arch-rival) ex-military prep schools in Chattanooga, TN. Interesting cultural change, to say the least. I was a young, just-sober, sarcastic and angry Yankee trying to find his way in the self-proclaimed Buckle of the Bible Belt.
Spring of 1991, we had an incident that would likely be defined (off the record) as a 'near miss.'
There was a boy at the school, a junior boarding student from Brazil. His family was rich, likely more fabulously so than the garden-variety Old South gentleman princes, and he was an odd duck. I was a proctor or whatever-you-call-it of the dorm. This was the all-male school, still more traditionally evangelical (and wildly homoerotic, but, again, that's another story) and conservative than its rival. A weird foreigner was fighting an uphill battle, yet, my sense of it was that he was odd enough that he avoided the generic teasing and Lord of Flies male behaviors. Not that he wasn't an outsider and ostracized, but it seemed equal parts his own doing or preference. He found me curiously not-of-the-South and recognized that I was also an outsider. I found him amusingly awkward. I gravitated toward the outsiders, since it didn't take much to fall outside the good old boy network, and any kid gutsy or angry or dumb enough to run head-first (or to outflank) into the stonewall of tradition merited my general or specific support. Omar was prickly, awkward, grating, obvious/clumsy. But he wasn't stupid. We managed a few decent conversations over the year.

That spring, there was a magical week or so before Daylight Savings ended, when the equinox was already adjusting and dawn broke hours before the alarm clocks sounded. My husky Watt was still a puppy and we would walk far and wide before my duties started. That week in early April, I found myself enjoying the solitude of the sleeping campus as dawn rolled over the hillsides. It was similar to DC or Boston, yet different--just, different: smells, trees, quality of light. Watt & I repeated this pre-alarm rising for at least a week. I wasn't crazy about waking before six (I was putting in absurd hours as a first-year teacher, 80 hour weeks, easily) but it was so pleasant and interesting, I didn't mind.

On the Friday before Daylight Savings, I awoke, saw it was grey and gloomy instead of pastel and enchanting, and rolled over for another twenty minutes. Watt & I meandered through the center of the campus in a light mist, less awake than previous mornings. Walking between buildings, I saw one of the kitchen workers staring at something on the porch of a small one-room meetinghouse. I approached and, from the peripheral corner, I saw two feet and legs splayed on the porch. The kitchen guy was shaking his head. I got closer, then saw a couple police officers approaching from the other direction.

There on the porch, slumped against the door, was Omar. A semi-automatic rifle was wedged between his legs. He had ammo belts slung bandolier style across his chest, and a hunting knife strapped to his leg. The police were taping off the porch.
The gloomy morning. The supernatural aspect of the previous week's dawnings. The smothering mist and clouds through which the crackle of the police radio intruded. Omar's boots and legs jutting out like that. Decidedly dead. Not alive.
And all I could think was that he'd killed his roommate, a quiet, pleasant Japanese student (yes, they stuck the two international kids together, despite their having diametrically opposed personalities). My mind spun: the dorm. Not just his roomie. He'd massacred the entire dorm as they slept. Or just those he didn't like. He was the type of misfit who kept minute score of slights and insults. He'd told me I was all right, that--for now--I wasn't on his hit list. Sure, Omar. Thanks, dude. An honor, I'd thought. Now, I felt dizzy, calculating how many of my students he might have killed. The dorm parents, too.

This was before Columbine and all the rest. There were no Hostile Action procedures on file. No real precedent. I was staring at a heavily armed dead kid, my mind clicking over the obvious possibilities. I grabbed one of the cops and asked if they'd checked the dorm. They radioed and someone responded that all was well. No one else injured.

Lone gunman, single victim. Misfit. 'Don't spend too much time trying to understand, guys. This has no cause, nothing we could understand. It is the tragic, horrible act of a sick, desperate mind.' That is almost verbatim the school's official statement to the press, parents, and student body. Behind doors, it was more blunt: Omar was a sick twist. Loser. Foreigner.

I disagreed, but no one cared what I thought. To the starched bosses, I wasn't much different from him. A suspicious fellow traveler. I was repulsed by the school's naked, petty, desperate self-delusion. For a churchy-as-fuck school, they certainly missed a good teaching moment about loving thy neighbor (lest he blow your fucking head off instead of just his own), or about tolerance or understanding, or many other potential subjects. 'Don't spend time thinking about it, fellows. This has nothing to do with us.' Nothing.

I knew, to my core, that we got lucky. If there were two angels floating through his ravaged mind, the good one got up earlier or spoke louder. He was armed for bear and ready to wipe out the dorm, possibly all three of the dorms. The school is built on Missionary Ridge, a significant tactical site from the Civil War. He'd have had the upper hand on the responding police, let alone the panicked schoolmates running scared across the quad.

Instead, he ate the gun.

Thanks for that, Omar.

What I wondered, what kept me up a lot, was this: if it hadn't been misty and overcast, if I hadn't hit snooze, and instead taken my previous paths, I would have encountered Omar on his final walk. If I'd seen him from afar, I would likely have recognized Nature's warning signs (heavily armed teen wandering the pre-dawn campus) and run. If he'd seen me first... If I'd turned a corner and there he was... Would he have popped me reflexively? Would he have shot me deliberately, getting revenge for my relatively greater social status as the 'interesting' new teacher? Would he have shot the dog first? Would he have talked it out with me, before either shooting himself or me or both of us?

I don't know. There were many other outcomes that morning, none good. I find the notion that God spared the rest of us risible. Dodged a bullet, we did... When my parents worry I've chosen to work such a risky job, I acknowledge the risks. And I think, Yes, and I could have been the pre-Columbine Columbine, the seminal school shooting victim. Dead just trying to teach young men to think... There are near misses every day. There are surprise calamities daily, too. I haven't seen the dividing line between innocent and deserving victims, so I go about my way, appreciating the risk of it all and clinging fiercely to those I love.

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