Growing Up in Alameda: Motorcycles! In the living room?
Growing Up in Alameda: Motorcycles! In the living room?
Station 1, mid-1970s, 1 a.m.
The crew was catching some ‘zs. I awakened to the voice of Archie Bowels and the often-heard phrase, “Alameda Fire Department.” The plea of a female voice on the other end was alarming.
“There’s fire coming out the windows of a house across the street and people are trapped!” she said.
Before the lights turned on and before we were dispatched, the beds were emptied and everyone was moving down the stairs and across the apparatus room to the rigs. I was driving Truck 1; Otis Clifton was driving Engine 1.
“What’s the address?” we asked.
“Otis Drive at Park Avenue,” came the reply.
With adrenaline pumping, I stepped up and slipped behind the wheel of the truck. “Hey, Otis, it’s on Otis!” I said.
Otis already had the Mack started. With my right hand I turned the batteries, disconnected two clicks. With my left hand, I hit the two starter buttons and Truck 1’s Detroit diesel came to life. What a sweet sound.
A sweep of my right fingers across the dash and all the lights come to life. The dash panel has always looked great lit up, and the rotating beacons reflecting off the walls and other apparatus added more adrenaline to the mix.
“Come on, Lieutenant. Let’s go!”
E-1 was out the door and a half block away as we pulled onto Encinal and then, left onto Park Street. I’ll catch them, no sweat.
Dispatch was on the radio to Engine 1. “We’ve received numerous calls,” they said. “There seems to have been an explosion and people are trapped.”
Engine 1 was accelerating through San Jose Avenue. The Mac-O-Dine diesel has always been set too fuel rich; we could tell when the engineer has his foot in it or was changing gears from the black smoke of the exhaust – hence the nickname, Super Skunk. Still, Truck 1 had pulled within 300 feet.
As we neared the intersection of Park Street and Otis Drive, the engine was in the turn, and we could see the reflection of fire and light on its side. I looked as we came around the corner and saw people running frantically, silhouetted in the flames.
The call from Captain Steckler on Engine 1 was for “a fully involved duplex. Engine 1 to Central, we’ll be pulling the live line and going in the front door. Central to Engine 3, pull Engine 1 a supply line.”
“Engine 3, Roger, will do.”
Engine 1 was directly in front of the house. We staged across the street and a little forward as we didn’t need the aerial. My crew has gone to rescue. Being a dry foot (driver), I stayed with the truck.
No ladders were needed so I pulled a supply line from Engine 1 to the hydrant and turned on the water. It’s always a great feeling when the water fills the hose and the engineer, Otis Clifton acknowledges with relief, “We have water!”
E-3 had arrived; they were pulling more lines around the back. Bystanders on the sidewalk were screaming, “People are inside!”
All immediate tasks were covered. What could I do? I pulled another pre-connected line and shoved it in the front window as the fire was still resisting entry through the front of the building.
Captain Steckler and Bob Hale were finally making headway through the door, but it was tough going. The fire was so hot and was beating them back. I thought to myself, people are in there. As I charged my line and hit the fire, it blew back in my face, hot and wet. I ducked a little and kept my line in until Steck and Bob were inside.
Back to the truck for the generator – they needed lights. As I pulled the extension cord and flood lights through the door and illuminated the now darkened structure, the scene in the front room took me aback: soot-covered walls radiating heat; the smell of wet, charred wood; two overstuffed chairs; a coffee table; a queen sized hide-a-bed opened out; and two motorcycles.
Wait – MOTORCYCLES? What the hell are two motorcycles doing in the living room?
The guys found a young woman behind a partially burned sliding door, right where my line had been trained. I didn’t realize when I stuffed the hose in the window that I was protecting and cooling her with the water curtain.
In the back bedroom, George found a naked teenage boy and was trying to carry him through the living room and out, but he needed more help as the boy’s skin was slippery and hard to hold onto; we were calf deep in water.
As I set the floods lights down, I received a severe shock. The extension cord had a short. They needed light and muscle. It was my choice to hold the lights out of the water as other guys assisted in the rescue. Too late – the boy was dead. Not a burn mark visible; smoke and heat got him, with a window just a couple of feet away.
The girl was still alive as they carried her by me. The scene was utter pandemonium; men silhouetted in my light were yelling and tripping as we tried to intervene on the inevitable. She was outside and being transported.
The fire was extinguished and cleanup underway. Probably within a half hour, life had changed to death. For what? A floor heater and a motorcycle gas tank. Crazy kids, you should have known better. No smoke detector.
As I looked at where the girl was laying, it seemed clear that she got up hearing the boys running to the back side of the house. She must have opened the sliders not knowing that the main fire was on the other side. That’s where she dropped, just two feet from a window opening and safety.
The next day we heard that the girl needed blood; we more than filled the request. That’s also what firefighters do. She only lived a couple of weeks. So close, yet, another tragedy.