By Charles Angione
January 28, 1986. I was in a hurry as I walked through the fourth street door to headquarters station. I was off duty and just had enough time to grab a book from my locker before picking up Joan at her office for lunch at Primo’s, a Portuguese restaurant that we liked. I was getting hungry just thinking about their Paella Marinara and wanted to get there before the full lunchtime crowd.
Uh-oh. It was obvious from the signs that there was a working fire under way. Engine 2 and Truck 3 were out of quarters, and their out-of-service lights were lit. Engine 4 had relocated and was parked in Engine 2’s bay. Staff personnel were in the process of putting their closeted gear on the reserve rigs. Just then, the voice of Deputy Chief George Lynn, the on-duty platoon commander, came over the housewatch radio with a progress report: “ … two inch-and-three-quarter attack lines working on the fire floor, a third line has been advanced to the floor above, sprinkler system has been augmented, ventilation performed, evacuation of occupants from floors four and five is progressing …”
I have to admit that normally I don’t mind walking in on a fire. And a fire at the Park Hotel was interesting, to say the least. The old brick and wood five-story structure, once a prestigious hotel, had long ago been converted to a kind of halfway house for people from various mental institutions, those graduated from drug or alcohol addiction centers and other persons not entirely responsible for themselves. The potential for disaster was considerable. We once had a rash of arson fires from this place that were set by some sick soul that our arson squad finally caught before he had killed anyone.
Right now, however, I wasn’t too thrilled about hanging around. For one thing, new regulations prevented me from responding to the scene unless the IC called for a greater alarm.
As ranking officer in quarters, I would be expected to take charge of headquarters station and be responsible for the coordination of all support activities. Also, I would certainly have to stick around for the duration and be available to command any subsequent serious alarms. I swore under my breath. I would definitely miss my lunch date.
Richie Mortimer was sitting at the housewatch desk up on the wide stair landing. “What do they have, Rich?” I asked “An apartment fire on the fourth floor of the hotel for the very nervous, Chief. Sounds like it was goin’ good, but they have a couple of lines hittin’ the fire now, and most of the occupants are out.” Just then, Captain Frank Leahey of the Bureau of Fire Prevention walked in from the apparatus floor and we conferred briefly about what preparations were being made and what had yet to be arranged. A working fire meant we’d have to man our reserve engine and truck to have enough rigs ready for other alarms. On this occasion we’d had enough staff personnel (firefighters assigned as inspectors, mechanics, etc.) on duty thus far to help us cover the town. They had already been assigned by Frank. If the incident commander called for greater alarms, or if we got a second worker, we’d call in more off-duty troops and request mutual aide companies from surrounding communities.
I got my gear out of the deputy’s closet and placed it on Car 3. Then I telephoned my bride and told her that our lunch was a bust. She was characteristically understanding. By now, of course, she was a good fireman’s wife, well accustomed to disappointing changes in plans due to me being a firefighter. Many firemen’s wives develop a faint halo from years of putting up with a firefighting husband and being left alone on nights, weekends and holidays. You can even just about see some of them at times when the light is right. Joan’s halo was clearly formed. “I’ll see you at home, then, sweetie,” she said brightly. “You take care, now.” I went back and climbed the stairs to housewatch. There was now a lull in the radio traffic. The fire hadn’t been called under control yet, but they seemed to be holding it okay. Everybody at headquarters station kind of drifted off. The staff guys returned to their offices and shops, and the others to the dining room. Richie and I were now alone at the housewatch, kind of gazing absently at the TV, which was still on, but turned down very low so as not to interfere with the radio transmissions. There seemed to be a spaceship being launched from Cape Kennedy.
“Is that a live space shot, Rich?”
“Yeah, Chief, I think that’s the space shuttle launching. I forget the name.”
“Oh, yeah, ‘Challenger.’ I thought they were on hold due to freezing weather or something.”
“Yeah, they’ve been on and off for days, but I think they finally got the OK to go.”
“Funny how we take it for granted, these days,” I remarked.
“Remember when a space shot was big news?”
There had been a time when a space mission would always be the top story, and people followed it intently. The whole country would seem to hold its breath. School classes were interrupted, so the kids could watch it on TV. Even many work places gave their people time off to watch. Over the years, however, it had gotten so that a space flight was no big deal anymore, and there was generally very little ballyhoo. Previous space missions had gone off without a hitch for some time now. They had become, to a lot of people (especially young people), old hat.
Of course there had been more than the usual PR for this sevenman mission, it being the first time that a private citizen — an engaging woman school teacher named Christa McAuliffe — had been chosen for space. Another woman, engineer/astronaut Judith Resnik, was also going up as a mission specialist. Even so, there just didn’t seem to be the same excitement about it.
Now we watched the final countdown. And then a perfect liftoff.
“Deputy Chief Lynn, please dial 3432,” came the voice of the chief ’s secretary over the PA system.
Richie and I looked at each other and smiled. Mrs. O’Donnell was such a sweet person, and very efficient at her job. She was like a mother to some of us. But she had never really learned our operation or to fully understand what we did here. I guess this pleasant grandmother just never thought it important. And maybe she was right. Her duties were strictly administrative and did not really include anything remotely requiring a knowledge of firefighting.
But you would think that some firefighting procedure would kind of rub off on her, so to speak, and be sucked up by osmosis as had occurred with other clerical people. She had to have heard all the bells going off, and the apparatus responding out of headquarters station. She had to have heard the radio reports from the scene over the PA speakers. Didn’t she realize that Deputy Chief Lynn could not answer her page because he was at the fire?
“Attention: Deputy Chief Lynn, 3432.”
“Do you believe that, Chief?”
“Better call her and tell her — in a nice way — that the deputy will be tied up at the fire for a while.”
Richie picked up the phone, still watching the TV. There was a long shot of the space shuttle climbing higher and higher. Suddenly something seemed to shoot off to one side and then sharply down, leaving a thick cloud of white smoke. Then there was a flash of light and another erratic looking trail of smoke.
Pieces of the spacecraft seemed to be falling off.
“Christ! Is that supposed to be happening?” I asked.
“They must be jettisoning the first stage rockets or something,”
Richie said hopefully.
Then the explosion. A ball of fire. They weren’t jettisoning a damn thing. They had blown up. Now Richie and I just looked at each other with our mouths open as the radio and PA system suddenly began blaring around us:
“Hotel Command to Central,” Deputy Chief Lynn radioed.
“Make this a condition ‘D’ dog [fire under control]. Housewatch, send Car 6 to the scene.”
“Deputy Chief Lynn, please Dial 3432.”
“Car 2 to housewatch!”
It took some moments before they got their answers.