CHAPTER 6 – Rescue
Half an hour later, Matti and Woody’s spirits found uplift when they wandered through a residential area that had not been so thoroughly destroyed. People actually talked to one another; apparent strangers willingly helped each other.
“Yo! Hey, buddy! Can you give me a hand here for a minute?” To which another responded, “You bet,” and did.
Matti could almost smile. This is how it should be.
A block farther, as they walked past a collapsed but unburned house, they slowed to watch what seemed to be a rescue in progress. Several people swarmed about near one end of the house where the second story and roof lay in a jumble among the ruins of the first floor. A big-rig truck from the semi-trailer’s wheels on back extended from the wreckage on the far side. It had apparently rammed into the house, causing it to collapse but started no fire. No one appeared to be in charge, but whenever someone made a request, at least one other person moved to grant it.
“Damn, he’s too big, too. How about you? You’re smaller.”
Another man, a smaller one, squirmed into the recess vacated by a larger man who edged back out of the way. After a moment, he said, “Damned hole is just too tight.”
Another man lying on his belly several feet away and with his ear pressed to a clear place on the floor, said, “I can still hear her crying.”
Matti and Woody edged forward. One of the men noticed them and said, “Hey, these two are pretty small.” Then, to the new arrivals, he said, “You guys can sure be a help here, if you will.”
“Sure,” Matti and Woody answered simultaneously.
Woody asked, “What’s going on?”
“Little girl musta been in the basement when the house came down. Someone heard her a little bit ago. She’s still alive but can’t get out. Might even be injured. There’s a hole over there that seems to go down towards where she’s at, but it’s small, really narrow. Too damned narrow. None of us can fit.”
“Let me look,” Woody said as he and Matti climbed up into the ruin.
They appeared to be standing in the kitchen, although much of the wreckage was bedroom furniture. The kitchen floor with much of the second floor had collapsed into the basement. The truck rested on the remaining weakened structure above the debris filled pit. To get into the hole, a rescuer had to squirm past the sidewall of the huge left-front tire. Occasional groans of the floor timbers told Matti the situation was far from stable. The truck could fall through to the basement at any time if the damaged floor gave way. If Woody was under it –
After a moment, he said, “Yeah, it is narrow. I don’t know if I can, either, but I’ll try.”
He accepted a flashlight from the last man who had tried, dropped to his belly and inched past the tire. But he got only a little farther in than the last man did. With his feet still sticking out, he called out, “Pull me back up. There’s a beam or something here I can’t get around.”
After Woody was back sitting among the debris with the other men, he flicked off the flashlight, set it down and said, “It looks like it would be clear if I could get past that beam or whatever, but it’s wedged good. I couldn’t move it.”
A man asked, “You think if we could get a saw or something down there?”
“I don’t think so,” Woody answered, shaking his head. “No room to work. Maybe a chainsaw.”
“We don’t have a chainsaw,” replied another. “There might be one around somewhere, but who knows how long it would take to find it, or even if it would work if we did.”
Another spoke up, “Well, Christ, we can’t just start ripping through the wreckage. It’d probably bury her good if we disturb it too much.”
“Let me try.”
“Huh?” The men turned toward Matti.
“Let me try,” she repeated. “I’m smaller than anyone here.”
“Yeah, but –” Woody started.
“Oh, Woody, don’t get into that weaker sex thing. You know perfectly well that I’m almost as strong as you.”
“I think she might be able to fit,” said the man who had gone into the hole just before Woody. “How much room is there for her to get around that beam?”
Woody looked at the man, then at Matti. “You might make it if you don’t mind donating a little hide. You’ll have to bend sideways and maybe trail one arm so your shoulders aren’t too wide.”
Matti started for the hole when Woody added, “But, uh, you might be … uh, you’re kinda … uh, you might get stuck.”
When it was clear from the puzzled look that Matti gave him that she didn’t understand what he was talking about, he went on, “You know, upside-down, uh, your top – your boobs.”
It hadn’t even occurred to Matti, but Woody was right. She was well aware of the problem breasts could be in an inverted position. She had worn sports bras often enough to know there was a reason for their design.
She almost had to laugh at his obvious embarrassment. But, with a straight face and gratitude in her voice, she said, “I’m glad you thought of it, ’cause I sure didn’t.” After a couple of quick glances at the wreckage about her, she said, “See if there’s a sheet in that bed stuff.”
Two other men pawed their way through the debris until one came up with the prize. He gave it to Matti, and she ripped off a large strip and handed it to Woody.
“Help me bind up.”
After some quick experimentation with corners and knots, she wore the sheet tatter tightly crisscrossed over her chest and tied beneath one arm. They decided bulky knots on her back could be at least as problematical as unrestrained breasts on her front.
She took a couple of tentative breaths and nodded. “It’ll do.”
She stepped over to the hole and dropped to her knees, but before she leaned over to enter that black pit, Woody said “Matti, wait. Listen, why don’t I just...you know. Like back at the river.”
“No!” Matti’s response was immediate and adamant. “Might not go over too well. Remember the last reaction?”
The men looked at each other. Of course, no one but Woody had any idea what she was talking about, and that was what she wanted.
“Okay,” Woody answered. “But if you really get into trouble in there, I’m not gonna –”
“Okay,” Matti cut him off, again. “But only if.”
She knelt beside the hole and picked up the flashlight. The men were still shooting each other questioning looks about their arcane conversation when she began to feed her head and shoulders past the tire and into that dark maw.
Woody was right; it was tight. She was head down in a shaft that had no walls, just a tangle of debris waiting to snag her clothes or skin. She was agile enough, though, that she managed to twist and move around and about enough to avoid most of the crueler hooks. She had decided against Woody’s suggestion of trailing one arm, and she was glad she did; there was no way she could have supported and controlled her descent with just one arm.
There was no mistaking the obstructing beam that Woody had warned her of. It was a four-by-six that extended from the rubble on one side and disappeared into the mass on the other side. From her first tentative pushing and pulling of the massive thing, she was convinced that it was probably the most solid piece remaining in the entire, shaky structure.
She began experimenting with the pieces that formed the almost-walls of the hole. Most of the debris was nearly as tightly wedged as the beam, but she did manage to work several pieces loose enough to give her hope. She assumed her feet were still sticking out of the hole where Woody and the others could gage her progress, and they were probably shaking their heads at each other as they began to accept another defeat. She might have given up, too. But, then she heard a cry.
“Mommieee...” It was very faint, and it faded off to nothing. It was little more than a sigh, but it had the effect on Mattie of an electric charge.
Holding herself with one hand braced against the beam, Matti re-grasped the pipe end she had been working on, working it looser with each wrenching twist. It stuck out several inches into the space at one side of the beam, effectively cutting in half the area through which she would have to squeeze. With a final yank, she jerked the blockage free and dropped it with a clatter into the blackness.
“Mommieee...” came an answering cry, again, faint, so very faint.
From the other end, up top, she could hear the men’s reaction to her disappearing feet.
“She made it!”
“She’s going in!”
And again, from below, “Mommieee...”
She felt a dull something scrape against her left side as she lowered herself past the beam, but she concentrated on the angle ahead, directly below. Until she got to the bottom of the well she was in, she couldn’t tell if she would be able to go any farther, and she pondered the odds that she would find the way open all the way to the little girl. She lowered herself past the jagged end of a splintered board that was solidly embedded at an angle in the wall of the hole. As it scraped the sheet material of her wrapping hard enough to be painful, she envisioned her unbound breast impaled on it.
A sudden creaking sound from above ended with a loud crack followed by muffled sounds of displaced and broken pieces settling. After a few moments of breath-holding waiting for the other shoe to fall – or in this case, the rest of the truck – she decided it wasn’t happening … yet. She forced herself to concentrate on each next step of her progress. If she allowed her mind to divert back up to all those tons of metal balanced above her, she would be quickly reduced to a babbling, panicking glob of jelly. She kept reminding herself of why she was down in that hole in the first place.
Supporting herself by the strength of her arms and shoulders in her head-down position – probably not more than twenty or thirty pounds were carried by her ankles and legs hooking over projections or wedging against the sides – she allowed the top of her head to just touch a jagged shard of sewer pipe. She remembered how she had learned to walk on her hands when she was nine or ten, and then, in recent years she had begun to climb and descend stairs in the inverted position. Only two or three at a go, but she had been proud of her accomplishment, knowing the strength and balance it required. She thought of the hours she had spent with Marisa practicing floor gymnastics, building strength and balance, and most important, confidence.
It then occurred to her that if she couldn’t at least get to a place wide enough to turn around, she’d never be able to make it back out backwards. Not even Marisa could have done that. Then it would be up to Woody. She wondered if the men up there would leave him alone long enough to lift her and the little girl all they way out.
At the bottom of the vertical area of the shaft, she lowered herself until she could settle one shoulder to a solid surface between the shards of a shattered terra cotta pipe. Standing upside-down, she manipulated the flashlight and pivoted her head about until she peered down an almost-tunnel snaking almost horizontally for about ten feet before disappearing with what she hoped was a bend to the left. She would have to get to that point before she would know, again, how much farther she could go.
Her gymnast’s body bent and twisted around the angle until she lay on her belly facing that next unknown, but she wasted no time in contemplating it. Ignoring minor scrapes and annoying pinches and pricks, she scrambled forward over jagged boards, broken pipes, and shattered sections of flooring and walls. She poked her head and the flashlight around past the rubble, and there she was. She had made it.
Another loud cracking sound echoed among the wreckage surrounding her, then a rain of dust all but obliterated her view of the space ahead.
Matti squirmed forward until she could see the little girl again. The space between them was still open, plus it was large enough that Matti was almost certain she could turn around.
The girl was probably three or four years old and slim. Good thing, Matti thought. We’re going to make it. We’re going to get out – both of us.
“Mommy?” the girl cried as light from the flashlight suddenly flooded her terrifying world. “Where’s my mommy? I want my mommieee.”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. Let’s go see if we can find her.” The fear and despair in the girl’s words almost drove Matti to tears, but she kept reminding herself of the tons of wreckage balanced over them that they still had to get through. She couldn’t afford to lose precious seconds – not yet.
Matti crawled over beside the frightened girl, and reflected light exposed two sneaker-shod feet protruding from beneath a mass of wreckage. They were just beyond where the little girl huddled beneath the heavy wooden stairs that had caught and held much of the falling walls, floors and furniture, and close enough for her to touch if she had reached out in the dark. They looked like a woman’s feet. Matti guessed the two had been in the basement together when the house came down, and that, in the darkness that engulfed her, the little girl had no way of knowing the fate of her suddenly silent mother.
It ripped at Matti’s heart to think of the little girl alone and terrified in the dark, calling her mother who had been nearby when the collapse occurred, but getting no reply. With the certainty of belief by small children in a parent’s invulnerability, would she have assumed she was abandoned? Without knowing that her mother couldn’t come to her, she may have assumed it was because she didn’t want to. Then Matti thought of the number of times this scene, or one similar enough, must have been played out in the past twenty-four hours in so many other places, and, again, she almost joined the waif in her sobs.
Matti studied the wreckage over the stairway and discounted that as a possible exit. A glance about the limited space of what was left of the basement, and she knew she and the girl had only one option. They would have to go back out the way Matti came in. They would have to climb up the shaft directly beneath the massive truck that the kitchen floor could not support for much longer.
“Can you get up, Honey? Can you move? Are you hurt?”
“I want my mo—mo—mommieee...”
Matti gently drew the girl to her and hugged her. Better not let her know about her mother. Not until she’s outside. Not if she’s going to help me get us out.
Matti hugged her close and spoke soothing sounds into her ear. In a couple of minutes, she had calmed the girl down enough to make a try at the tunnel.
As Matti shined the light into the hole that beckoned them, showing the girl how they were going to get out, she realized just how unlike an actual tunnel it was. Nothing but a series of connected open spaces, randomly and serendipitously created in the house’s collapse. What were the odds?
With constant guidance and encouragement from Matti right behind her, the little girl made it through the tunnel, and even made the turn upward. From there, daylight made its way down to light up the sides of the passage before them as they ascended. The girl climbed above Matti’s head, placing her hands and feet as Matti directed.
When Matti put her weight on something as she hoisted herself up, the sides of the shaft where it was buried began to crumble. At the same time, the creaking from above increased to loud, popping cracks. The girl screamed and started to climb back down. Falling debris and choking dust filled the narrow space with her, and she stopped with one foot pressing on Matti’s fingers curled around the stub of a broken pipe.
“Keep going, sweetheart. It’s okay. Keep going up. Go on, now. We’re almost out. Come on, you can do it. Climb on up. That’s right. You’re doing great. Keep going.”
Matti could hardly hear her own voice above the sound of collapse above and about her. She was surprised the girl could hear her. But she apparently did, because she lifted her foot from Matti’s screaming knuckles and found footing higher up. Matti scrambled up after her, and it was all she could do to keep from screaming for the little girl to move faster.
The problem of the beam wasn’t as bad as Matti had feared. The slip of a girl easily climbed past it, and even Matti had little trouble now that she was head-up.
When the girl suddenly rose up out of Matti’s reach as though she had sprouted wings, Matti hoped Woody hadn’t done something foolish. But then she saw a hand reaching down from outside to help her, and she knew they had made it. Now, if only – how cruel it would be, with safety within reach, for the truck to crash down on her head now.
Strong hands gripped her wrists and she practically flew out of the hole. As she was clearing the lip of the floor, there came a horrendous renewal of loud cracking and splintering sounds. The side of the truck tire brushed hard against her hip, and she realized it was sinking as fast as she was rising.
The man who had wrapped her wrists with his fists fell backward, dragging her away from the rapidly enlarging hole in the floor. She scrambled with him over to the edge of the wrecked kitchen, turned, and watched the truck tilt to one side as it sank in quick jerks.
Only when it appeared that the truck had reached its depth with the back of the cab’s roof still above floor level did Matti turn to look for Woody. The other men had scrambled out to the open yard, but Woody wasn’t with them. Then she saw him. He was beside the broken breakfast table, hunched over and gripping his hands to his head as though to contain an explosion of pain.
She scuttled over to him, frightened that he had been injured, perhaps struck by some piece flying from the shattering floor. But when he raised his head and saw her beside him, his face lit up, and he threw his arms about her.
“Oh, Matti, Matti, I thought I’d failed. I thought you were still in there. I could feel it slipping – it was just too heavy. I could feel it going for a long time, but I just kept holding it as long as –”
Then Matti understood. “I thought it was like something out of Hollywood where they get out at the last instant before the whole thing comes crashing down. But, it started crashing down before we got out, didn’t it? And you held it up all that time? My god! How could you hold up so much? How much can you hold up?”
“I think that was my limit, more than my limit. That’s what I said. I couldn’t hold it.”
“But, you did! You did hold it! Even if it was only for a minute … Woody, even if it was just for a second, you held it – with nothing but your mind! Oh my god!”
They held their embrace, trembling as the implications of Woody’s feat sank in. Only when a hand laid on Matti shoulder caught her attention did she pull away from him. She looked up to see one of the other rescuers standing there.
“Thanks,” the man said. Then he picked up the flashlight from the floor beside her, turned and walked off with the others.
She settled to a sitting position next to Woody. Together they watched the group of men and women begin to disperse, moving out through the neighborhood to help in other situations. An older woman held the little girl in a tight embrace as she carried her across the street.
Well, Matti chided herself, what did you want, a parade?
Woody gave her a questioning look with a tired smile and a nod towards the receding figures. “Shall we?” he asked.
Matti looked after the group that was already beginning to splinter up, each embarking on individual missions. “Why don’t you go ahead,” she said. “I’m sure they can use you. I’m going to try to find Jamal.”
“Huh uh,” he answered as he helped her to her feet. “I’m not gonna let you take off on you own and get yourself lynched. Where do you want to start looking?”
“Thanks. It would be nice to have a friendly face nearby.” She paused for a few moments then said, “I don’t know, Walnut Park, I suppose.”