Faith, like so many other things in life, means different things to different people. It ultimately depends, I suppose, on our experiences and philosophies. So, I can only speak for myself about that often-elusive notion called faith.
It seems that most of the time the word, “trust” can be used in its place and the meaning’s the same. I have faith in the abilities of my captain and crew. I trust them to be there when the goin’ gets tough. When I’m in a burning building wondering how much more the soles of my boots can take and I hear chain saws overhead, I have faith that my brothers will get the job done and that we’ll all go home to our families.
But faith meant something very different in Las Vegas in the spring of 1992. It was the second day of the Rodney King riots and in an attempt to mimic Los Angeles mobs, groups of troublemakers were on an arson rampage. The call came in at 01:42.
“This call is for Engine 1, Engine 10, Truck 1, Squad 1, Rescue 1, Battalion Chief 1, Rescue 3, Engine 3, Engine 30…Fire in a building.” It was a bizarre sounding dispatch. Normally, there are three engines and one rescue on a single story structure fire. But because of the fact that there were already reports of previous fires in the area and shots being randomly fired the assigned units were subject to change. We were in the “Civil Unrest” mode and as such were rolling in a “Task Force Group.” In this case, we had an additional engine, rescue, and a fully manned squad. Four police escorts, two fore and two aft of the rolling battle-group, provided armed guard. All of the huge doors at Central Station opened and 44 men surged into a night that would soon change our lives.
We approached in the stealth mode… no lights, no sirens. There were abandoned, gutted cars everywhere. The streets were strewn with broken glass and debris. As we made the turn onto E. Owens, I could see the squad cars leading the pack. In each of the forward units all three passenger doors were peeled back revealing the most heavily armed officers, outside of Special Weapons And Tactics teams, that I’ve ever seen. Surreal. There is no other word for it. And as we neared the “Out Of Bounds Lounge”, the equipment flickered with the bright, dancing orange of a rapidly advancing fire. We came around the final corner bringing the blaze into full view. The shotguns and automatic rifles protruding from the patrol cars were silhouetted by the glow looking like the masts of bizarre four-man gunboats. From somewhere across the street two shots cracked the night. We wouldn’t be issued our Kevlar vests until the next day and as I heard several more random shots ring out I felt extremely vulnerable.
Engine 10, one of the true workhorses of the Las Vegas Fire Dept., had been my assigned unit for just over a year at that time. With the addition of extra engines and rescues, callbacks were made to augment the manpower. One of the callbacks was firefighter Jerry Jones. Jerry was a national champion rodeo cowboy 6’4” and tough as nails. It was his destiny to be in the jumpseat next to me on that fateful night completely unaware that the next time E-10 rolled out it would be returning without him.
The Station 3 units had beaten us in by two minutes and by the time we were positioned, they had charged lines at the front door and were making entry. Our initial assignment was to assist Engine 3 and Engine 30. Jerry and I proceeded to the crew and were instructed to begin a primary life search. Once away from the main blaze visibility cleared up to about five feet and we could see that we were in the bar area of a bar/restaurant. As we groped on our hands and knees, we proceeded around the perimeter of the area and inadvertently put ourselves in line with the hose streams of the fire attack team. A squall of water, steam, fire and debris ripped through a doorway leading to the main fire area. We both dove to get out of the direct blast. I went one way and Jerry went the other. That’s all it took. We were separated.
It’s always amazed me how something like a restaurant or even a residence can turn into a monstrous maze of obstacles, twists and turns, tunnels and caves. After the fire, you look at where you were and it looks so benign. How could I have been lost in this room, you wonder. Or, how could we have gotten turned around? But there we were, lost, turned around and separated. The buddy system was shot to hell. There was no line to follow out; air was running low and an ominous, creaking sound rolled overhead.
Outside, the chief officers were listening to the rage of an angry neighborhood. Engineers manned the panels wondering if someone was lining them up in their sights. The police in a semicircle formed a gauntlet of protection in the front of the building, as they stared into the glowering night. They were endangering their lives so that we could endanger our lives in an attempt to save someone’s business. As it turned out, a business someone intentionally set ablaze.
During the [Rodney King] riots, many unscrupulous businessmen saw the unrest as an opportunity to gain from a marginal or failing business via an insurance check. More than a few of the fires allegedly set by “rampaging rioters” were actually set by cold, calculating, “respectable” business owners. The very people whose property we were trying to rescue may have been the ones who started the blaze. There was strong evidence that someone had partially cut through the structural supports of the roof to hasten collapse and assure a more substantial loss. Apparently, the later discovered accelerants alone were not considered capable enough assassins. It was not the collateral violence of mindless mob rage but a souless, murderous son-of-a-bitch who was responsible for the catastrophe that was only moments away.
I kept one hand on the wall and crawled in the direction that I was sure was toward the rear of the building and away from the main fire. Actually, I was crawling parallel to the front of the building, not toward but not away from the fire either. Then I heard the yelling. The shouting was confused but I did make out, “Get out… everybody get out! The roof’s coming down!” This was relayed information from Truck 3 Captain Bill McCandless. Bill had been under a previous collapse himself so when he saw the sickening sagging and all of the telltale signs of eminent failure he called “emergency traffic” and radioed the words, “Abandon the building, we have structure failure. Abandon the building!” He then flew down he ladder and repeatedly sounded the alarm to get everybody out. I owe ya one, Bill.
I stayed as low as I could but got up on my feet to make better time. That’s when I heard a sound that made my skin crawl. It was the splitting report that thunder makes before the boom. There were three or four quick cracking shots and then the sky fell. With an ear splitting, tearing sound tons of timbers, bracing, roofing and ceiling as well as car-sized air conditioning and heating units, ductwork, conduits and wiring became a tomb. Not with a sudden slam but with an irresistible push the mass from above collapsed my knees and the hazy light that had been around me was gone. When the crush subsided there was still some popping and creaking, but it soon stopped and all was quiet … and dark.
By the grace of God neither lasted long. I soon heard muffled shouts and reaching up I realized that my helmet light had simply been knocked back out of position. I located the handlamp that I had dropped and was soon able to size up my situation. I found myself in a long lean-to tunnel formed by the length of the bar and the ten-foot deep pile of rubble. Shining my light directly ahead illuminated the feet of another firefighter as he crawled the length of the bar and out of sight. I thought it was Jerry and I breathed a sigh of relief that he had gotten out. I was about to crawl out myself when I realized that although much of the building was flat on the floor some of it was stopped just short of it by tables, chairs, and other furniture. The entire room other than my “bar tunnel” was maybe 12” to 18” tall and I could see back under it approximately 15 feet. I remember thinking that there wasn’t enough room for a person under there, especially a big person such as Jerry.
As I shined my light into the dense tangle my heart stopped. I could see the top of Jerry’s helmet and part of a gloved hand outstretched as he lay on his side under the weight of a building. I could hear muffled sounds as I crawled toward him. He was alive, but for how long, I wondered. He had to be just crushed. As I approached him I heard him yelling, (trying to, anyway. he couldn’t get enough air in his lungs to really yell) “Help! Help me, please.” Of course, we all have a tough time of it when children are injured. But to see this bull of a man laid so low and helpless and to hear his plea for help when right at that moment there was nothing I could do tore at my chest no less than any of the heartbreaking child calls I’ve been on.
I called out, “Jerry, Jerry are you alight?”
“Who’s there? Who is that? Albaitis, is that you? Help me. I can’t move. Get me out. Please help me.” I can’t tell you what that felt like.
“Yeah, Jerry. It’s me. Albaitis.” I gave a moment’s thought to staying with him until someone found us but dismissed it. There was no telling what was going on outside. These were the days when only the captains had radios. I needed to report the situation and get something to work with. “Jerry, I have to leave. I can’t do anything without tools. I’ll be right back, I promise.”
“Is the fire out,” he barely controlled the panic. I felt it too. From where I was, there was still a glow but I couldn’t tell for sure.
“Yes Jerry, it’s out.” Since I had to leave him crushed and trapped, the last thing he needed was the thought that he was going to be burned alive. “Don’t worry Jerry. They’ve got it. It’s out.” Please let it be out. God, please let it be out.
I wasn’t real sure that I could get out but I knew I couldn’t do any good unless I tried. My bottle got hung up twice as I crawled in reverse but I backed out to where I could at least get on my knees. From there I could turn around and in a few minutes made it to a rear door and out.
When I rounded the building, panic was everywhere. Bill McCandless who knew better than anyone what the crews were going through was furious. In his mind, the message took too long to get to the men and he was enraged. Everyone was in a confused freaked out state of mind. Chain saws were starting. Bull bags were being positioned. The disciplined structure of RIT was years away at this point. It was barely controlled hysteria. From the front, it didn’t look like anyone could have survived the collapse. To this day, the people who weren’t there refer to Jerry being crushed by an air conditioner that come down. It was much, much more than an air conditioner. Three quarters of the whole damned place had come down on us. It really looked fatal. Between the fire, smoke, the dozens of officers, and the screaming frenzied chopping and tearing at the wall of rubble that had been a building the scene was from a firefighter’s nightmare.
I tried in vain to get the attention of a couple of the captains but there was so much shouting and arguing that everyone had the “best” plan that I gave up and decide to crawl back to Jerry.
In front of Fire Station #3 is a most unique sculpture. It appears to be a giant fire hose frozen in a jumbled configuration that, at a glance appears abstract. But as the viewer moves around the composition it finally falls into place as the hose, in three, large connected letters spells, “Art”. Not bad. Engineer John Banks is the artist who bent, welded, and painted many feet of heavy pipe to create the illusion. It was John Banks who handed me two heavy-duty hydraulic jacks. No illusion. A friend of ours was still inside a collapsed, burning building, and as I turned to make my way to the back door and retrace my route back to Jerry, two more shots rang out. No illusion, but it didn’t seem real either.
With the jacks, at least I could take some of the weight off of him. I grabbed another air bottle and headed for the back. The rear side of the structure was still about 50% intact. The doorway I had come through almost looked undamaged. It was considerably quieter in back. Most of the shouting was muffled. The Squad had set up an array of lights in the front of the building. In combination with the haze of the smoke, it created an eerie “Close Encounters” looking glow above the silhouette of the building I was about to enter. Spooky as hell.
I knew it was freelancing. Everything was wrong with the whole scenario. But I felt as though I had no choice. I didn’t know when the effort would become organized. I didn’t know how much longer the remaining roof would stay up. I didn’t know a lot of things. I did know that a fellow firefighter, a friend and my partner was trapped inside and his air was running low. I was alone and scared shitless but I was going back in. Freelancing or not, wrong or not, there wasn’t time to be right. Just before stepping through the door, I paused and leaned against the wall and said a quick prayer. “God, please let Jerry live. Just let him live.” I turned to go in and looked up at the strange sky and added, “Oh yeah… me too”.
The first few yards were easy, if you call going back into the lion’s den easy. I only had to think of how hard it was for Jerry and what I was doing didn’t seem so tough. Just as I dropped to my knees to begin the crawl into the worst of it, something groaned. A low sound that built to a grind was topped off by a terribly loud crack. The timbers above me dropped several inches and I lost it. I swear I had to stifle a scream. It took all I had to keep from bolting. The space wasn’t more than two feet in height. I was reminded of basic training and the low crawl that we were taught. It’s amazing how low you can get with machine gun fire over your head. The difference was that then you could roll over on your back and at least look at the sky. No sky here, only a long sagging, creaking, burning coffin. What the hell am I doing here? Just then, Jerry called out.
At a fire in a building few years previous Frank Munoz, my partner at the time, and myself were assigned to cut a ventilation hole in the roof of a new bank. A vagrant had accidentally set fire to his “condo” in the attic of a strip mall bank. It was summertime and over 110 degrees. By the time the hole was cut, we were both spent. But what really added insult to injury was looking through our textbook 4’x4’ vertical ventilation hole and seeing another crew walking around in the guy’s quarters. Seems they had found the door that the vagrant used and simply walked in. Frank and I don’t talk about that much.
Well, this was kinda like that. As I low crawled to Jerry, I realized that he was moving away from me. You guessed it. Someone had found another way to reach to him and was getting him to his knees in an area of the building that wasn’t flattened. Damn! As he tried to stand, he casually informed us that his legs were broken. He leaned on Andy Anderson, the genius who found another way in and me. We bore most of his weight as he repeated over and over,” Get me out of here, guys. Please, just get me out.” After about the fifth time I said, “Jerry, look up. It’s the sky, man. We’re out. You’re safe.”
We all looked up at the sky and it was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen. The lights of downtown Las Vegas melded with the fire and smoke of a neighborhood under siege and it was beautiful. As the three of us breathed in a deep, free breath my thought at that moment was that someone is looking out for us. There are guardian angels up there. By rights, at least three of us should have lost our lives that night. I didn’t realize it at that moment but part of the inspiration for a future painting had just taken place. Nearly five years would pass before a suggestion by firefighter Sheri-Lee-Bass would recall that feeling and the images from that night would coalesce into the concept that became the painting, Guardians. Funny how things happen sometimes.
The warm fuzzy feeling abruptly ended as four shots rang out and I remembered that there was a bit of civil unrest about. The action was in the front of the building where the apparatus and chiefs were. We were in the back so I felt a little safer. By then, half a dozen firefighters had come to the back and a rescue unit had been sent around. By the time we had Jerry’s gear off and quickly splinted both legs, it was time to exit stage left.
The only other firefighter to sustain injuries was Russ Hubbs, the guy I saw crawling out ahead of me. He had taken a pretty good blow to the head and was going in for x-rays. Rescue 3 left with Jerry and Russ while the rest of us made it around to the front of the building just in time to hear two distinct and attention-getting sounds. The first was the staccato clack of no less than 30 rounds from a high-powered assault rifle. The second sound was the amplified police order to abandon all lines and get the hell out. No one had to hear it twice. I literally dove into the back of Engine 10 while putting on the headset to let Bobby Baxter, our engineer, know that I was in the rig. Quite unnecessary. When I opened my eyes, I realized that we were leaving the scene at a high rate of speed. The Chief was so close to our bumper that the slightest deceleration would have put him into our hosebed. That departure was mimicked across the fireground. Engines, truck companies, rescues units, squads and chief officers blasted out of that “hood” like the devil himself was in pursuit. As we pulled onto the freeway and made the wide loop back to the station, I could see the glow of the Out of Bounds Lounge. The fire regained its rage and the would-be death trap crumbled in a plume of red-orange and black.
It was a long night. Back at the station, we regrouped and before long we were out again on other fires. We checked on the guys throughout the night. Morning finally came and we were replaced by the oncoming shift. Russ was released with a minor concussion. Jerry returned to the floor after more than a year and a half of convalescence and rehab. He would retire seven years later. Everyone came away a little wiser, a little more mortal feeling. We joked about the bullet indentation on the bumper of Engine 10 and had another hair-raising episode to add to our war stories.
But something happened to me that night in 1992. I found a faith in something bigger than our day-to-day lives. Death had been a shot away and somehow we all went home to our families. A belief was forming and although it was vague and uncertain, it had to do with the feeling that we had not just been spared but rescued somehow. It was as though we had unseen help. Hard to explain really. More of a feeling than anything but rather than the “trust” type faith, this was a knowingness; an absolute certainty that nothing really dies and, for me, a redefining of “faith” as a connectedness to forever.
As I mentioned, it all came together five years later in 1997 during a gallery showing of my first published piece, Return To Glory. I was approached by fellow firefighter Sherri-Lee Bass (Her maiden name is Lee and that’s the name on her helmet in Guardians ). She described her vision for a future FireArt painting. “How about this,” she started. As she laid out the details, it began to feel familiar. “When she said, ”… and up in the sky are the old firemen”, I was hit with a flashback that brought me to April 30, 1992. In an instant, I was there again. The gallery suddenly smelled of smoke and I felt hot and sticky. It wasn’t totally unpleasant just unexpected. And, closing my eyes, I remembered. In startling, extreme detail I could “see” myself, Jerry and Andy. The rear doorway leading from the Out Of Bounds Lounge was vivid and I could see the smoky desert outside as well as the lights of Las Vegas. Involuntarily I turned my head up and I remembered… that sky, that rescued feeling and the Guardians who I know were there. I said, ”Yeah Sheri. I think I can do something with that idea.” Six months later Guardians was finished.
On July 28th, 1999, I appeared at the opening ceremony for a new courtyard at the training center for the San Diego Fire Department. Guardians was chosen to be laser-etched into a granite monument, the centerpiece at the base of the colors around which special events, formal ceremonies and graduation exercises would take place. A year later, the last lithograph was sold and Guardians became the first FireArt piece to sell out. Although the limited edition lithos are no longer available, the signed, open edition giclées and the posters of Guardians continues to be a FireArt favorite.
I’ve come to believe that guardians have watched over me my entire life. Although I didn’t know it then, their work with me was far from over. It was a bit of a surprise how soon they would again be needed, but that’s another story.
The fact is I’m not anyone special. I’m convinced that in one form or another we all have guardians looking out for us. Somehow, it’s part of the plan.Our time on Earth seems to be punctuated by these “Moments Of Truth” when we stand at one threshold or another and are required to put it all on the line. It’s almost like a quiz or test in school when the teacher is asking, “OK kid, show me what you’ve learned from that last chapter?” And, as in school, we don’t always ace every test – sometimes we don’t even pass the test. But, it’s not the end of the world. We take our licks, study harder and pass the next test, the next “Moment Of Truth”.
I can’t explain it; I just know that it’s all about faith.
It always has been.
© Allan Albaitis and FireArt™ August 2001
Categorised in: True Stories