“It’s going to take forever to get there in this snow.”
That was the first remark I heard about the event, aside from the basics: place, fire type, and potential casualty estimate.
For those interested, the answers were “Silver Stream Forest off RR7, unknown, and unknown.”
We were in the middle of a once-in-a-century snowstorm. Those once-in-a-century storms that seem to come every five years nowadays. Doesn’t mean much to some, but for those of us who have to work and drive in them to save lives, it matters.
That night, it mattered.
Our station is the only one in the area. Under ideal conditions, the rural route seven connection to the forest would be a 35 minute drive. We’d be lucky to get there in 90.
An hour into the drive, we saw the aurorae, despite the howling wind blowing heaps of snow through the air. I’d guess the visibility was less than ten feet. But the aurorae were clear.
“Electrical?” John posited.
“Not sure how that’d work,” someone answered — sounded like Lloyd.
“No.” John agreed. “Me neither.”
I looked out the side window toward the direction of the lightshow. It wasn’t like the kind I’d seen when I spent time in Iceland after college. Nothing like that. These ribbons of light were thin and fast moving. And red, too. All shades of red, from deep crimson to something that neared orange.
“Definitely not the borealis,” I said, mostly to myself.
John got on the radio and asked dispatch if there was any new information. They were still working on it.
“There’s nothing but woods and houses out there as far as I know,” Andy said. “Nothing that’d be causing anything like that.”
“Maybe a meth lab?” Lloyd suggested.
“I doubt it,” John said. “But I can’t think of anything el…”
The radio crackled. Jenny from dispatch.
“Looks like a plane might have gone down,” Jenny informed us. “Ted Davis from the airport over in Lovis said he was tracking something for a few minutes before it went off the radar. Said it disappeared right around where our first call came in. He didn’t see any transponder info on the plane, so probably military. Hope you guys are ready for company.”
Jenny laughed as she told us this last part. I think all of us rolled our eyes.
We’d had to deal with accidents that resulted from goings-on at the military base before. Lots of dick swinging from military folks about jurisdiction and procedure and all of that. Nothing any of us wanted to deal with.
“Thanks Jenny,” John answered. “Let us know when you get anything else. Oh, and try calling over to the base. I know they usually don’t answer, but if they’re already heading over then we can be ready for that whole situation.”
“Ok,” Jenny radioed.
At that moment, we were a little more than halfway to the site.
“Who called this in, anyway?” Andy asked.
“A homeowner,” I said. “Remember a couple years ago when there were those protests about that company cutting down some quote-unquote sacred indian forest?”
“Oh yeah, is that where this is?”
“Yeah, the company put up a housing complex for long-term contractors who work on the base. About a hundred units. Looks like the fire’s near there.”
“So why are we the ones going driving through this shitshow of a storm when the military guys could be dealing with it?”
“Don’t know what to tell you, man.”
We rode in silence for a little while. Snow gouted from the sky in dense, heavy flakes. In the lights of the truck combined with the strange atmospheric lightshow, the flakes were an eerie, dark pink.
Lloyd spoke up. “If this is a military aircraft, there’s definitely going to be a hazmat situation. God knows the kind of shit they have on those things.”
I nodded. “And we’ve all dealt with hazmats more times than I can count.”
“I think I see something,” John announced, pointing.
The rest of us squeezed together and looked. The telltale orange glow of fire was visible in the distance, filtered through the thick, gauzy flakes.
“Where are we, exactly?” Andy said to himself, looking at the GPS. A few seconds later: “Jesus, we’re still miles from where the call came in. Either Jenny was off with the location or that fire’s a fucking monster if we can see it through this much snow.”
“We’re at the top of a hill looking down into the valley,” John said, squinting to see the road. “That development Erica was talking about is right in the middle around there,” he pointed, “so since the fire’s there,” he moved his finger to the left,” it looks like the plane missed most of the units. Anyway, by the time we get there, I think the storm will have done a lot of firefighting for us.
“Hey guys,” Jenny’s voice came through the radio, “come in.”
“Go ahead,” John answered.
“The military said they had no flights scheduled for tonight because of the weather.”
“Well that’s a plus,” Lloyd chimed from the back. “I wasn’t in the mood to deal with those assholes.”
Jenny continued. “They also said we shouldn’t respond to the fire.”
The four of us all muttered our own versions of, “what the fuck are they talking about?”
John clicked the talk button on the radio. “Jenny, what do they mean ‘don’t respond?’”
“They didn’t say. Just that they’ll handle the cleanup when the weather clears.”
“When the weather clears?” John seemed incredulous. “Didn’t a plane crash into a bunch of fucking houses?”
“That’s what it looks like,” Jenny replied. “And I’ve gotten more calls from homeowners in the complex. It’s burning hard. You’re going to have multiple casualties. I called over to Hewitt and Jaynes counties to see if they could send their own units. Both can, but it’s going to be a while before they get there. You guys are flying solo for a while. Do your best.”
“Any word on hazmats from the callers?”
“I asked but couldn’t get a straight answer. Proceed in the way you think is best.”
“How about the Captain? Did you get him?”
“Yeah, I got his wife on her cell phone and she woke him up. He’s the one who said ‘proceed in the way you think is best.”
“Fine, thanks Jenny.”
“No problem. You boys be safe out there.”
“Okay,” I announced, as we turned off the main road onto the rural route. The housing complex was close. Orange light from the fire began to overtake the shine of our lights in the cab of the truck. “Breathers on, full hazmat protocols in effect, etc etc etc. You guys know what to do. People first, fire second.
“Andy, find a good triage spot and set up the medical stuff. John, Lloyd, and I will…”
“What the fucking Christ is that?” John interrupted. The truck slowed as he applied the brakes, its heavy tire chains chewing into the snow.
“What?” I asked, staring.
“That,” John said, pointing at the power pylon on the side of the road.
We peered through the windshield.
“I don’t see any…” Andy started, but then stopped. He saw it. Then the rest of us did.
Something was draped over the top of the pylon. It glistened in the flickering light of the fire. I couldn’t make sense of it.
“Let’s go,” I told John. “We need to get in there.”
John resumed driving, but the four of us craned our necks as we passed by the pylon try to figure out what it was we were looking at.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the complex.
“Wow,” Lloyd muttered. “That’s must’ve been quite the fire.”
It was an understatement. In the time it had taken us to drive there, it looked like the worst of the flames had burned out. The majority of the western quarter of the housing complex had been leveled. Small, isolated fires still licked at the parts of the structure still standing, however, flickering and blinking out under the onslaught of snow. The firewalls separating the units seemed to have worked pretty well.
“Why isn’t there anyone outside?” Andy asked, and gestured to the building on the other side of the parking lot that looked like a recreation center. “There’s no footprints going over there.”
“Probably got filled in by the snow,” Lloyd said. “But I don’t see any lights in there, either.”
“It looks like there’s still part of the building still standing on the far west end of the complex,” I said, squinting at the structure through the snow. “We’ll start there looking for casualties. I don’t know how much longer that part can remain standing and I don’t want anyone who survived the fire having the building fall down around them.
“Andy, do your triage center at the rec place across the street. We’ll take anyone we find still alive over there. The rest of you, let’s go.”
Lloyd, John, and I, donning the rest of our equipment, trudged through the snow in the direction of the western part of the complex.
“I can hardly make out what that wing of the building looked like before it burned,” Lloyd said. His voice was clear in our in-helmet radios. “I don’t know if what’s still standing is the stairwell or elevator column or what.”
“Yeah,” I responded slowly, staring with curiosity at the structural piece jutting out of the charred ground and debris.
“Where is everybody?” John wondered.
We were a hundred feet from the remains of the structure. There was much less snow to walk through here, since the fire had melted most of it. It was icy, though, and the three of us struggled to walk over the treacherous terrain in our heavy gear.
“Andy, has anyone come to you?” I asked over the radio.
“No,” he radioed back. “I haven’t seen a soul.”
“I’m gonna drop the lights here,” Lloyd said, and placed the powerful construction lamps on the ice, pointing them at the skeletal remains of the building.
I couldn’t help but notice how silent the scene was. Above us, the last of the aurorae that’d been with us blinked out.
Lloyd flipped the switch for the lights. Bright, white beams blasted the charred side of the structure. My eyes widened.
“That’s…different,” John whispered into the radio.
Neither Lloyd nor I replied. The three of us stared at the structure in front of us.
It wasn’t the remains of a building. It wasn’t any building at all — not one that I’d ever seen. It was wedge-shaped, maybe 50 feet high, and covered in mounds that reminded me of metal that had melted and left to cool. It jutted from the ground, almost as if it had been shoved into the dirt.
“Guys,” Lloyd said, and gestured. A blackened body lay face-up about a dozen or so feet away from the wedge.
“Another one,” I informed, pointing. “And there. And there.”
All in all, it looked like twenty bodies, all charred beyond recognition, were strewn around the site.
“Can we get up that thing?” John asked.
“I don’t think we can,” I replied, studying the smooth topography of the wedge.
“Maybe if we could get up there…” John suggested, pointing at a hole in its side. “Do you think the ladder will reach?”
“Probably not,” I said. “The closest place we can bring the truck is over there and I doubt that’ll be close enough. Let’s do a quick check around this area for any survivors, then move on to the less damaged parts.
“Hey Andy? If no one’s coming to you and you’re done setting up, start knocking on doors.
“And Jenny? Can you hear me from my helmet or is that not working again?”
“I read you, Erica,” Jenny chirped.
“Can you get call routing to give you the phone numbers of the people who called this thing in and call them back? We’ve got no one out here. Not a soul.”
“Pretty spooky,” Jenny radioed. “I just got a call from the county – there’s supposed to be a few hundred folks living there by now.”
“A few hundred?” Andy radioed from the other side of the complex. He sounded bewildered. “I’ve got nobody here. No one’s answering doors. And you guys saw when we came in, the parking lots are full.”
“We’ll be in touch,” I told Jenny, ending our connection, then, to the guys, “we’ll start going door-to-door with An—”
Andy interrupted me on the radio.
“I need you guys to come here now. Like right now. To the truck.”
There was something in his voice that froze my blood. He sounded small. Frightened. Andy. Andy Dross. Andy Dross, the US Marine medic who served in Fallujah before he joined the department with us.
“We’re coming Andy,” I said, and the three of us turned and headed toward him.
“There’s someone there with him,” Lloyd called.
“Thank God,” I thought. “Someone who can tell us what happened here.”
Andy was standing with his back to the truck. He wasn’t moving. He just stared at the person in front of him. As we got closer, it looked like he the person was another man, around Andy’s height. He didn’t look burned, at least from the back, and he was dressed in pajamas despite the driving snow.
“Sir, are you oka—” I began, walking up to them and standing beside Andy.
The man’s face was missing. Everything, from his forehead to his chin, was gone. I could see the inside of his brainless skull from top to bottom, ear to ear. There was no dripping blood. No clumps of gore. Just a wet, gaping hole.
“What the…” Lloyd gasped.