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Built for Survival
“Box! Box!” The crew of the fire engine yells out as the ominous alarm buzzes over the speakers. For the uninitiated, these intense men aren’t yelling box because an Amazon package has finally arrived. They’re yelling box because that’s code for, “we got a fucking fire!”
Even though I’ve been preparing for this moment, my heart is pounding out of my chest. My legs feel light and heavy at the same time as I run over to the passenger door of the massive fire truck and start putting on a set of bulky bunker gear. Sweat is already trickling down my neck. Everybody in my crew is sharp and experienced, but I’m just a beginner. I sling my hood over my head then plunge my feet into my boots and hike up the trousers, pulling the suspenders tight over my shoulders. My arms are stiff, and my hands are shaky as I struggle to snap the button in the middle of my pants. I had run into this problem hundreds of times at home when I practiced putting my gear on as fast as possible. The button never clicked at home, and it costme precious seconds. And that’s when I was able to take a step back. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and did the maneuver I taught myself to finesse the button on.
“Come on Wang! Get dressed! Hurry up, get in!”
Months of practicing in my room to tune out the loud pressure was paying off. I would bring my bunker gear home and do self-initiated drills, where I would play a stressful recording of a firefight in the streets of Iraq on full volume and do 15 burpees. When I finished and was gasping for air, I raced to put my gear on as fast as I could. I would be lightheaded while soldiers yelled at each other, bullets whizzed by through the speakers and car alarms went off as artillery rounds put holes in the road. “Lets go Danny! Hurry up! Go faster! What’s taking so long?!” I would yell at myself—all to get ready for this moment.
“COME ON WANG! WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG?” Jimmy, the large Asian firefighter covered in tribal tattoos in front of me repeats.
But all I hear is my breath exit my lips as I finally snap the button together. I feel triumphant, but there is no time to celebrate. I throw my radio strap on, then my thick jacket, clipping the four D rings bottom to top as fast as I can while my crew keeps badgering me. They are already inside the fire engine, already dressed. The loud engine started growling and the asphalt began to vibrate. The pressure is stacking up on me, but I know better than to cave in. I just have to remember what my instructors drilled into me for so long: Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
Then, I hop in, slam the door shut, yank my seatbelt across my chest, and buckle in.
“You good in the back?!” the driver yells over his shoulder.
“GOOD IN THE BACK!” I respond.
The officer, who usually sits in the front, is sitting next to me in the back. He’s an older man in his sixties, a rarity in a job that is keen on breaking down the bodies of 25-year-olds. His face is rugged and the wrinkles just under his bald head show the wear over the years that covered the intense glare he gave me. He seems nervous for me, and at the same time the tension in his face tells me one thing: Don’t fuck this up. And it’s hard not to fuck this up because I have no idea where we’re going or what the plan is. He’s the one who is supposed to give us that information. But right now, he gives us nothing.
Everyone is silent as we careen down the street like a runaway train, air horns blaring and sirens wailing. And yet, all I can hear is my deep breathing. That’s all I can focus on. I take the waist straps of my air pack and carefully fish them from underneath my seatbelt. Click. I prayed to God they didn’t get tangled up.
We make a sharp turn and I see the same four-story concrete building I had been to plenty of times before. There’s another fire truck there and personnel standing outside, all focused on me.
Here we go. I think nervously as I took one last deep breath and hop out onto the pavement with my 30-pound air pack strapped to my back.
“WANG!” Jimmy, yells to me, “Grab that ladder, we got victims on the second floor! Move!”
My body switches into autopilot, too stressed to think. I’m sprinting over to the ladder rack on the second fire truck and rip off the 24-footer as fast as I can. But I can’t catch my breath. My nerves are starting to flood my inner fortitude, drowning out any remaining sense of calm in me. I grit my teeth and run with Jimmy as fast as humanly possible, the heavy rails of the ladder digging into my shoulders.
“Get that ladder up, Wang!
Grunting through my teeth, I throw the ladder flat down on the ground and shove it against the exterior wall. I grab the rails and explode like a power clean until it’s over my head. I push the ladder upward with the driving force of my legs and outstretched arms until it is parallel with the building.
Now, I feel my heart throbbing strong and fast; I can even feel it in my head, but I can’t get it under control. I’m getting frustrated that I can’t calm myself down. Still, I keep on and extend the ladder five feet with the rope called the halyard and flip it back over. I position the top just under the sill of the window.
“Lets go, Wang! We need to get inside! We got victims reported on the fourth floor—hurry up!” He sprints over to a metal door that leads to the inside of the building. The fire alarms are going off just on the other side. They repeat their horrifying howls, telling everybody to evacuate the building while we were going inside.
The 60-year-old officer stands next to the door, his eyes following me as I huff and puff his way.
“Wang, grab those irons, get this door open for me!” he says sternly.
Oh god. How the fuck am I out of breath?
I grab the 2 ½ foot long iron Halligan bar from the ground, the iconic forcible entry prying-tool of the fire service. It has a long metal shaft with a six-inch wedge on one end and two curved metal prongs on the other. I check to see if the door is unlocked before I break it down; it’s locked shut. The two firefighters behind me keep hollering at me as if I was the only one who could save the day; they’re getting under my skin.
I slam the head of the Halligan into the door three times from top to bottom, the loud clanking stinging my ear drums. It’s a method that helps one see where there is the most give between the door and the jam. But I’m so overwhelmed, I can’t tell. I thrust my body up against the door and jam the thin wedge blindly into the crevice of the door and the jam.
“What’s taking so long, Wang?”
I push down on the shaft of the bar to assert leverage into the wedge, but it slips out.
I grunt again.
“Do you need help Wang?”
I don’t want to say yes.
“Try the forks, Wang! I’ll help you!” the officer tells me.
“OK.” I mutter.
I flip the bar around to the end that has a curved fork. They act like claws that wrap around the door to force themselves inside. I position the forks and give commands to the officer to strike it so it wedges around the door jamb. Still, I’m struggling to get the door open.
“Do I need to open this door, Wang?” Jimmy asked. I pant and tell him I got it even though I didn’t.
“You sure, Wang?” he asks me as the wedge slips out again.
“Give it to me.” He says and rips the bar from my hands. I stand back, embarrassed as Jimmy breaks the door open with ease. I can tell the officer is disappointed, even though there’s no time to internalize it.
“Let’s go, Wang—we gotta do a search of the fourth floor!” Jimmy says, then springs inside the dark stair well. Because he’s not wearing as much gear as me, he leaps up the stairs like a gazelle. I try to do the same, forcing my burning thighs up two steps at a time until I reach the top floor. The fire alarm is ringing in my ear, sending a chill down my body as the hallway lights get dimmer and dimmer. I push through the burning sensation in my legs and chest to try and redeem myself until we make it to the top landing. I want to keel over but we were just getting started.
“Mask up Wang! Mask up!”
I grab my air mask dangling by my knees and disconnect the regulator with my gloved hands—a method not everyone had trained themselves to do. I sling the mask over my face and pull the straps tight for a good seal, wrap the heat-resistant hood over the edges of the mask, and tighten my helmet all within 17 seconds. It was faster than what the officer expected.
“Wang get your gloves on!”
“He’s already got them on, Cap.” Jimmy says.
“What?! Oh shit. You masked up with gloves on?”
“Yes sir.” I say, panting.
He inspects my face piece for any safety infractions but there were none. He nods and then puts something on my mask.
“Get ready to click-in, Wang.” He says. “Get down, smoke is banked down to the floor.” He has his hand on the doorknob to the hallway. “Follow Jimmy.”
“Yes sir!” I say. My nerves are still getting the best of me. I don’t understand why I can’t settle myself down.
“Let’s go.” The officer opens the door, but I can barely see anything. Connecting the regulator to my face piece, I take a deep breath and feel the dry air gushing by my face, creating a noise that sounds like a winded Darth Vader. The claustrophobia of breathing in the mask is something I’m still getting used to, but right now, I want nothing to do with the discomfort it’s causing me. At the pace I am exhaling, I’m going to run out of air in 15 minutes.
“To the right Wang!” Jimmy yells at me. We crawl into a pitch-black room as the light from the stairwell dissipates behind the closing door. “Keep going straight. You feel any bodies?!”
“Keep going straight!” I can feel Jimmy’s hands directing me somewhere. I know why he is doing it, but it feels like I’m about to be betrayed. I keep sliding on my knees until I feel a small opening in the wall.
“Check in there, Wang!” I get on all fours to move into this space, even though every part of me is telling me to back out. I hate confined spaces. I hate the feeling of being stuck. I hate the feeling of being smothered by this mask and this heavy, heat-retaining suit; a recipe for a panic attack. But I know I have to stay disciplined. I take a couple more steps forward. Then, I suddenly feel the floor give and I fall straight down.
I’m shocked. I’m on a different level now, and Jimmy was nowhere to be seen or heard. It’s just me, the fire alarm and primal fear. I reach out and feel nothing but walls all around me. I’m confined alright. My breathing is speeding up and I’m doing everything I can to slow it down. I inhale deeply and hum on my exhale. We were taught by our lead instructor that this could slow our heart rate and relieve the tension we carried. But it’s futile. My body is overheating, desperately pleading for me to take everything off. But if I do that, I’ll be exposed to the dangerous atmosphere. So, I do what I have to do. Sprawled out on the floor, I grab my radio and speak into the mic.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Engine 7, Right bucket, Firefighter Wang, I’m in the delta quadrant, I’ve fallen through the floor from the fourth flour, I’m looking to self-extricate—command acknowledge!”
As I army-crawl forward I hear the outside commanders reply: “Your command has been acknowledged, we’re sending a Rapid Intervention Team to your location right now.”
I can hear shivering in my breathing. My body is not happy. I wiggle under a low hanging wall, the air bottle scraping the top.
Just keep going Danny, don’t stop, you’re good.
I reach a point where I can get up on my knees. I feel for an exit, but it’s a small hole that I can’t fit through. I try pushing up onthe flimsy wood ceiling, but something is holding it down. I abandon it and get back down on my belly and crawl forward. I look at my air gauge and its already halfway done. Now I’m panicking even more, because if I run out of air in here, the mask will stick to my face, suffocating me. I try and slow my breathing as I crawl, but it’s not working. I hit yet another wall,but I can poke my arms through it.
Oh shit, it’s a bunch of studs.
I turn my back to the wooden posts and wedge my air pack between them. I do a back stroke with one arm through the stud opening and then the other and begin to inch my torso and legs through them sideways into the abyss.
Holy fuck man, when am I going to get out of here? Shit, stay calm, Danny, you gotta’ slow down your breathing.
I turn my head and then saw it: The light of an exit door on the other side of a low crawl space. I’ve never felt more relieved in my life—it’s right there.
Oh, thank God, thank God!
I start crawling forward, exhausted, and desperate to take everything off, literally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel before me. But I am so focused on reaching freedom that I don’t see the danger overhead. I make it into crawl space when a cluster of cable wires drop down, startling me. I know I can’t get tangled up in here as I have nothing to cut them with. I take my air bottle and dig it into a crevice where the wall meets the floor at the corner.
I wedge it in there then try to swipe the cables out the way with my hand in a swimming motion. But the personal alarm for my air pack keeps going off, which does so when the air pack is motionless for 20 seconds. Normally, to stop the alarm I would have to shake the pack to silence it. But in shaking around, I don’t notice that two wires hooked themselves onto the back of my air pack. I just keep inching forward towards the exit. I’m so close I can reach the threshold when I feel the wires tug me back. I can’t move any further.
I keep pushing and pushing, trying to force the cables out as I tried to summon some unknown strength within me, but it wouldn’t budge. I was halfway through and stuck. I laid there for a second, sweat dripping off the inside of my mask into my eyes. I’m so exhausted I can’t even think of what to do next. That’s when my mask started to vibrate, indicating I’m low on air. It’s one of the scariest sounds to hear in the fire service when you’re trapped deep inside a dark building.
I grunt again. “Fuck!” I yelled in frustration. That’s when I hear a voice from above.
“Control your breathing.”
He’s right, but I haven’t been able to do this the whole time. I try to center myself, and then make a move. I scoot backwards, trying to unhook the wire from my back. It is successful, until I moved forward and get stuck. Again.
“Control your breathing.” The voice says again. I give the maneuver a couple of goes and just get myself in a worse position. Now the hose line to my facepiece is caught in a wire. I’m pretty sure I’m doomed. I just laid there, watching my air pressure drop even more. I’m spent; I can do no more.
Then, a man in a fire department uniform crouches at the end of the crawl space and starts talking to me. “You’re pretty tangled up my friend. How do you think you can get out of this?”
His voice is so calming that I nearly cry.
“I have to scoot back and relieve the tension from the wires.”
“Ok, go and try it again.”
I do and I eventually became free but there’s still a freakin’ wire around my face.
“Oh man, I don’t even know how you had this happen.” The firefighter tells me.
I don’t say anything.
“Well, normally, if this was real life, you could use your wire cutters but, in this case, you might have to do something crazy.”
“You could try disconnecting from the low-pressure hose, going around the wire and then reconnecting it. It’s not something we really teach but, in this case, it might be your only option. You just gotta’ hold your breath.”
At this point I’m willing to do anything to get out. I do what he recommended, holding my breath and trying to reconnect the air hose in the dark. It takes me about 15 seconds, my head starting to spin but I eventually click it in. From there, I carefully move the rest of the wires out the way and push my way to the exit with my legs. Once I get out, I take off my regulator to breathe the fresh air that has been there all along. Then, I take off the “smoke screen” that the officer had put on my mask at the top of the stairs. It’s a training prop designed to blind us, so we getused to working in low visibility due to smoke.
“Well, you got through it.” The instructor says. “But those wires were definitely hemming you up. Any time you see those wires drop down overhead, you want to shield your bottle as best you can or else this happens.”
I stand up and we both walk outside, the glaring sun making me squint.
“Don’t feel bad man, this thing was designed to mess you up. We’ve all been through it. It’s pretty dang exhausting.”
“Yeah, I’m just disappointed in myself.”
“Don’t beat yourself up too much, man. You made it through.”
Soaked in sweat and tired beyond belief, I start walking down the stairs back to the main building of the fire academy. I’m sad. That wasn’t the Danny I knew who had taught himself to turn panic into grace. I’m thinking my fellow recruits will be disappointed in me, asking what the hell took me so long. I hope that one day down the road I can have a shot to redeem myself, of all the mistakes I made in this grueling fire academy.
I survived the scenario. But that’s all it really feels like. I just survived.
Danny Wang is a professional Firefighter/EMT, writer, and an avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jijtsu.