Stan could hear his blood pumping in his ears as their destination drew near, feeling everything under his skin despite the protective layers. Five years on the job, and that uncomfortable itch of anxiety still got to him every damn call.
The ride to the area wasn’t long with the siren on and Celso’s skillful driving. Even before reaching their destination, the indications of the fire were around them, the heavy smoke that darkened the sky, the smell, and the undetermined noise of a chaos in progress.
Although Stan already finished a degree in nursing and even top-notched the licensure exam, the Buenaobra patriarch convinced him to get into the PNPA and start his journey to becoming a firefighter and graduated as cum laude.
After getting the post, he had to endure four years of physical and mental training at the Philippine National Police Academy.
Stan often considered his younger years mimic the Ugly Duckling. He’d been a cute kid but when puberty hit him, he was tortured. He was a crippled boy who had a severe case of acne. His lower teeth were crowded that some had grown rotated and twisted. He was ridiculed for his look, bullied by the cool guys, and ignored by all the pretty girls. He suffered from bad social anxiety and always seated at the back of the class.
Now, Inspector Eugenio Estanislao Buenaobra, the Station Commander of the San Isidro Fire Station had shed the dorky schoolboy persona with an impressive physique and become the city’s modern day hero.
No matter how many years of experience he acquired, there would always be one thing that would make his skin crawl; the suffocating smell of burning flesh. He swallowed hard and pulled himself together. He had to keep his mind clear if he wanted to be of any help to those that needed him.
When they were a couple blocks away, he could make out the crowd gathered at a safe distance from the building that was caught up in flames. Bystanders, mostly curious people that loved drama, were one of the first difficulties they had to overcome when they got a call. Stan never paid them attention as long as they weren’t creating problems, despite the fact that he hated them being there, seemingly delighting in other people’s suffering.
“We’re here team, get ready!” Stan commanded.
They piled out of the truck and went to work: Mike readied the ladder, Eric on the nozzle and the other three firefighters were getting a hose line out. Once the hose was charged the group made entry.
The scene around Stan was a flurry of activity as other volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel rushed around. There were three ambulances on site. Clearly, they were expecting the worst, and rightly so.
The problem with high-rise fires, especially in ones like Odessa Condominium, which was forty-storey, the longest aerial ladder only reached 110 ft. That made search and rescue of the upper floors extremely dangerous. Cave-ins were common, casualties even more so.
They were trained for this. They could do this.
The fifteen floor was engulfed in angry orange flames that taunted them from the inside as though they were daring the firefighters to try and extinguish them. Acrid, black smoke billowed when a window was shattered by the intense heat.
“Miss get out of there!” Someone shouted.
Stan jumped at the woman who was about to be hit by shrapnel and broken glasses. He quickly pulled her behind the firetruck and protectively covered her with his own weight.
“Miss, are you okay?” Stan asked as he pulled the woman up to her feet.
The woman stared at him and slowly nodded her head.
“Good, what’s your name?”
“Candy,” the woman answered in daze.
Stan felt the world narrowing around him, every sound mixing in a chaotic discordance.
“You need to move away from this place. Do you hear me?” He tried to stay focus amidst the chaos.
“Yes.” The woman nodded vigorously. “Thank you.”
“I was just doing my job.” He extended his hand, helping the woman steady herself as he asked once more. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, thanks again.” The woman gratefully smiled and ran for cover.
“Sir!” Luigi called. “The fire started on the fifteen floor where the food court was located and a lot of people were eating during that time. The fire resistant lining of the building had done its job, Sir. However, there was no way of knowing if there are still people trapped inside, until someone entered the building.”
It wouldn’t be the first time, but even though there was a tangible risk that every time they entered a burning building, they might not make it out, it never made the reality of the job hazards any easier to swallow.
“Let’s get going.” He nodded, put on his oxygen mask and his body went into autopilot.
Approximately, after eight hours later, the fire was extinguished. All the firefighters have already made it out of the building unharmed. Three people were rescued and were handed to the paramedics.
Stan headed to their fire engine and sat down on the back of the truck, relaxing.
“That was big.” Mike sat beside him and downed the bottle of water.
The fire was out; he was almost out of air and exhausted. Stan ran a hand through his hair, turned to Mike, and smiled.
“Yeah, I wonder what our next call would be,” said Arvin and handed him some water, joining them at the back of the truck.
“We all did a great job. I am proud of you team,” Stan tapped their shoulders.
The team packed everything up and put the hose back in place. Another hour passed before they were ready to head back to the station.
Once they were back at the station, Stan took off his gears and his shirt, leaving only his pants. “Go take a shower and freshen up. We’re having a debriefing later,” he told his team.
When everyone had freshened up, they gathered on the big steel table in the middle of the galley.
Stan never disappointed. Whenever his crew needed to debrief, he always brought some food. The idea being that talking on an empty stomach can make an already difficult situation much more so.
The crew grabbed their comfort food which was very much needed every once in a great while.
“So, we’ve done this before,” Stan sighed, getting everyone’s attention. “What’s said in here stays in here. No personal attacks. We all know the rules.”
The firefighters nodded.
“How long did it take us to get on scene?” Stan asked.
“Nearly fifteen minutes,” Eric spoke.
When Eric’s voice trailed off, everyone remained silent for a moment. They all lost themselves in the memory of a mother running outside the building with her lifeless child in her arms.
Mike leaned forward after taking a long drag of his drink.
“Yeah, well, today a family lost their kid’s life,” Stan spat.
“Does anyone really know if that child would have survived if we could have gotten to him sooner?” Luigi asked. “No. There are things that beyond our control. Celso drove as fast as he could to get there. We could only do so much.” Luigi shook his head in frustration.
“Soriano, I know I told you this earlier when you saved that boy trapped between the fire and the grills, but I want to repeat it...you were amazing. Very few would jump in and act without being told the way you did. The very first child code I ran, I froze like a deer in headlights. You got back there and did exactly what needed to be done,” Stan told Ritz, the only girl in the team.
“The outcome sucks, but Inspector is right,” Celso interjected. “I’ve never seen a firefighter do what you did today. I hope we get to keep you for a long time, Ritz.”
Ritz let out a shy smile. “Just doing my job, Inspector.”
“We all have every right to be upset about this. But Luigi is right, none of us could have done anything differently or better. I just don’t want you to lay the entire blame on yourselves.”
All attention was on Stan, although the entire team was still down and shaken, it was all the pep talk they needed to keep going.
“I hope you don’t hang everything on the ‘what if’. There are a lot of unknowns in this job. You’ll run other calls that you’ll wonder about later. Just do what you do best.”
“Buenaobra!” The voice of Chief Inspector Calma suddenly rang behind the door.
“Sir.” Stan immediately stood in attention and greeted their chief and so as his team when their chief entered the galley.
“I received a memo from Bureau of Fire Protection. There will be a national competition among firefighters and this is for a cause,” Chief Calma said as he walked around and inspected each and every apparatus.
“What kind of competition, Chief?” asked Eric.
“For the first time ever, our country was invited to the prestigious Mr. World Firefighter Competition. We will choose a candidate from all over the country to represent the Philippines in Australia this coming August.”
The team cheered with awe, tapping each other’s back, frothing with excitement.
“Stanley! Stanley! Stanley!” they chanted.
“Guys, leave me out of it.” Stan shook his head. “Not gonna happen.”
“Stanley! Stanley! Stanley!” His team continued cheering.
“It is settled then,” Chief Calma declared. “Buenaobra, you will represent San Isidro Fire Station at the Mr. Philippines Firefighter Competition.”
Stan had visualized himself as one of those ripped semi-naked firefighters holding puppies and almost choked.