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Moment Mondays: “Flash” by Caroline Paul

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

By Larry Smith

Each Monday, we feature a story from our upcoming book, The Moment, coming out in January 2012 from Harper Perennial. What’s a “moment”? It’s a story, told in words, images, emails or even the occasional Tweet, about something large or small, playful or profound, that changed someone’s life. Everybody has a Moment—what’s yours?

The Moment below, “Flash,” comes from Caroline Paul, a writer who in a previous life was a San Francisco firefighter. It’s a singular moment in one person’s life, one most of us would never even come close to experiencing. And yet like the best Moments, “Flash” tells a larger story about growing up.

By Caroline Paul

“The situation now in the house’s hallway was pretty typical—pitch black from smoke, and hot. Very hot. We were all crawling and dragging hose, bumping into walls and each other. Then—it was this simple—the world exploded.”

Black smoke was pumping heavily from the house when we arrived. The chief looked unhappy; the first arriving crews hadn’t pinpointed the fire yet, and the situation was devolving. My crew was trained for search and rescue, and that was all we were supposed to do, but today the chief growled, Grab a hose and find the goddamn thing. My partner for the shift was Victor. He was a baker in his off-time and I liked him immensely, but he had the maddening tendency to do everything slowly and very carefully. So I had to wait behind for him, and Frank got to the nozzle first, much to my dismay. Frank was a third generation firefighter; he was aggressive, and eager, and strong. Still, I wanted to be on the nozzle, the one who faced the fire head-on. Too late. Frank and his partner were charging into the garage, pushing open a side door. I followed, with Victor trailing.

As one of the few females in the San Francisco Fire Department, I had a lot to prove; the men viewed girls as sissies, I thought, and I was put on God’s dear, green earth to show everyone otherwise. To that end, I jostled to grab the Jaws of Life before anyone else, gleefully attended the most gruesome amputations, grinned about the biggest, baddest fires. I once jumped across an alley, from one building to another, five stories up, in full fire gear. I did it because another firefighter did it, and I figured if he did, I had better too. No one else would do it. They waited for a ladder to be brought up and thrown across, like smart people.

I was young and arrogant and flippant. God, I was a pain in the ass. And, of course, my comeuppance was nigh.

The situation now in the house’s hallway was pretty typical—pitch black from smoke, and hot. Very hot. We were all crawling and dragging hose, bumping into walls and each other. Then—it was this simple—the world exploded. Later it would seem fitting that my turning point arrived the way a revelation should: with a great flash of light. The next second we were in the garage, untangling from each other. I sat up, dazed. Someone said, “Flashover!”

Flashovers are no joke. In technical terms flashovers happen “when the majority of surfaces in a space are heated to the autoignition temperature of the flammable gases, also known as Flash Point. Flashover normally occurs at 500 degrees Celsius (930 degrees Fahrenheit) or 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit for ordinary combustibles, and an incident heat flux at floor level of 1.8 Btu/foot.”

Put it in plain English: The air somewhere near us had exploded into flame.

Now there were curses from Andy, and Frank was grabbing each of us by the shoulders and shouting, “Are you okay?! Are you okay?!” We were, it seemed. All this took only a few seconds, then Frank said, “Where’s Victor?”

Victor? He wasn’t in the garage. Which meant he was still inside. I processed this in what seemed like slow motion. Everything took on a surreal drawn out quality. Frank, turning back the way we had so unceremoniously come, Andy’s curse words like a long, slow yawn in my ears. Victor was my partner, therefore my responsibility. But suddenly I was frozen, stuck to the floor in some strange, paralyzed state I had never felt before.

And here was the thought, loud in my head and spoken in no uncertain terms: I’m not going back in there.

It was only a second. But I heard the voice clearly. I squashed it, just as quickly. Then, as if fighting against a greater force in me, I clumsily followed Frank. We found Victor quickly; he was unhurt, thankfully, and had taken cover in an adjoining room. Later at the station, we joked about the explosion, our burned ears, the expression on the chief’s face as we came somersaulting out of the doorway into the garage.

But that day, for me, was more than just another adventure. It had exposed something that I had not reached before—a limit. The explosion had shaken something loose—a dark and fearful side I had to face. I had been young and arrogant and flippant.

Now I was just young.

Caroline Paul is a journalist and author of Fighting Fire, a memoir of her time as a San Francisco firefighter, and East Wind, Rain, about the villagers of an isolated Hawaiian island whose lives are forever changed when a plane crash-lands nearby.

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