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When a small boy is trapped in a burning building, firefighters rely on their skill, faith and prayer.
Tommy and I worked as a pair. We got down on all fours. Every few seconds I reached out to touch Tommy or I felt him touch me. Maintain contact, I reminded myself. That's one of the first rules.
Trying to find Tommy if I lost him would mean a delay, possibly death. For me, for Tommy, for the child in the house.
The smoke quickly grew thicker until it was pitch-black. One thing you don't realize about a fire until you're in one is how loud the sound is. Flames roared in our ears. Pieces of ceiling smashed down on our backs. Ashes everywhere. The blistering heat sucked sweat from our skin.
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"Anyone here?" I shouted. No answer. Tommy and I searched every inch of the first two rooms. No child. My hand knocked into a wall. We followed it down a hallway. I strained to see something through the smoke. Couldn't make out what it was, so I reached for it.
A table leg. Then a chair. Must be the dining room. Tommy and I felt all around under the table. Again nothing. "Next room!" I shouted.
I knew the layout of these houses. The only room left was the kitchen. We crawled from one end of it to the other.
Flames roared louder. How long before the roof collapses? "This is it!" I yelled to Tommy. "We have to get out!"
All at once a vision was put into my head—that father begging us to save his child. We couldn't give up. Not today, I thought again. There still might be a chance.
All right, Lord, I prayed. Pastor said this morning that you'll never let your children down. Well, there's a little boy somewhere in here who needs your help. And so do I.
I tapped Tommy on the arm and motioned him to follow. "Let's try here!" I shouted. I reached out. Thick black smoke flowed through my empty fingers. Then my hand landed on something. Another chair leg? No. Too thin.
I squeezed gently. Soft. It felt like...an arm. "Tommy, I've got him! I've got him!"
I snatched the boy up in one arm and frantically waved ahead of me with the other, half crawling, half crouching. Stay low. Move fast. My breathing was a roar inside my fire hood. Sweat blinded me. Didn't much matter. I couldn't see anyway.
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Tommy kept close behind, tapping me again and again. I was out the front door before I could make out a glimpse of daylight. I stood up and ran with the boy to a safe distance. I put him down on the lawn. His face gray, his body limp, his chest still. Couldn't have been more than two years old.
I tore off my mask and started mouth-to-mouth.
Breathe! Finally he sputtered and took a breath. Then another. Slowly color rose in his face. Our EMTs started him on oxygen and loaded him into our ambulance. It looked like he would be fine.
Once the fire was under control, Tommy and I stripped off our gear and sat in the shade of a maple, drinking ice water a neighbor had given us. I looked down at myself. I still had on my "Coolest Dad" T-shirt. Filthiest dad was more like it. Those black stains would never come out.
"Look at this," I said out loud. "You can hardly see what it says anymore."
The neighbor who'd given us water just smiled. "That's okay," he said. "Today you guys gave another dad the greatest gift anyone ever could."