The fire was on the sixth floor of a mixed-use mid-rise building. We arrived five minutes after the call came in. Reports said the fire had broken out on the third floor near the stairwell. Three people were unaccounted for. Written records showed the first and second floors were shops, and above that was residential.
“If anybody’s missing, they’re probably on the residential floors, yeah?”
“Stop thinking like that,” I scolded the newbie. He’d only graduated from the academy last year. “We’re going to look for them anywhere they might be.”
I put on my respiration mask, what we call a face-piece, and we entered the building via the balcony on the fourth floor. There was no fire in that room, but there was plenty of smoke, and visibility was bad. We immediately began the search for survivors, but couldn’t get around very well. There were cardboard boxes in all directions.
“Adachi, man, there’s way more smoke than I thought.”
“We don’t know what’s out there, be careful.”
The boxes cost us a stupid amount of time, but we finally made it out into the hallway, and found one of the victims collapsed right there – they must have been trying to take cover. I kept an eye out while the newbie checked on the victim, following the usual protocols.
“One victim located, we’re taking him to the hook and ladder,” I said into the radio, and the newbie and I carried the victim back to the hook and ladder we’d rode in on.
We passed him over to the guys in the bucket and went back inside again to look around the other rooms on that floor, but didn’t find anyone else. Another team found someone on a lower floor, so that left one more.
We were still looking through the area – not that sight was much use in there – when my bombay went off. My tank was low.
I checked it – it still had at least ten minutes left. What with the tension and all the strenuous moving around, respiration rates can shoot through the roof on a call. That’s why it’s important to stay calm at the scene.
I’d hoped to get past all those obstacles in the hallway and go up the interior stairs, but the stairs were blocked with cardboard boxes too. I cut a path through them, wanting to click my tongue at whoever left them there, and kept going. The door to the first room was locked. As I kicked it down, my bombay’s warning sound changed subtly.
It’s fine. Even with the path back the way it is, I’ve still got five minutes left.
I knew the protocol was for me to go back and exchange my tank, but my feet kept going obsessively forward.
I couldn’t see the newbie very well in the thick smoke, but I could hear him through the microphone attached to my face mask. “Let’s switch up with the rear squad.”
“We’ll get back in a second.”
“What are you doing. Withdraw.”
That was the squad captain’s voice on the radio. We must have been taking longer than expected.
So then. I had to go back.
My composure finally returned, and I was just turning around when I spotted a victim buried in the cardboard boxes in the middle of the room. He’d fallen face up, and in my mind I saw a colleague I’d ended up deserting in a factory fire a while back. For an instant I couldn’t move, it felt like I’d been bound hand and foot.
A colleague who couldn’t move, hot air spraying against my body, the noise of an explosion, the bombay’s strange alarm in my ears. For a minute, I didn’t even know where I was.
“We don’t have any time!”
The instant the newbie raised his voice impatiently at me, the images of the past lifted like a fog.
I clicked my tongue at myself and the way I’d frozen over, and got to my knees. The two of us quickly hauled the victim up. In that instant, a surprised grunt slipped out of me. I’d figured he was going to be about 60 kilos, but he was easily 80. 1
We hoisted him onto my shoulders and rushed back to the balcony, but when we got there, the ladder truck had moved to a rescue on another floor. Apparently there were more victims than we’d planned for.
The two regular bucket guys would have to descend and then stretch the ladder out again – they’d never get back here in time.
“Adachi, you’re not climbing down with him on your back, are you!?”
I tied the rope to the handrail, and had my reluctant partner fix the victim to me. If they’re unconscious, we usually use the stretcher, but we’d planned on rescuing everyone by hook and ladder, so we hadn’t brought the stretcher up with us.
There were some ladders installed along the building’s front, but a direct drop would be faster.
The guys below looked up, surprised I wasn’t waiting for the hook and ladder.
I ignored them, and braced my foot on the wall. After that, it was just straight down. My marks in climbing had been great since my school days. I let some rope slide through my hands, thinking I had it made.
But I hadn’t fallen that far when I sensed disaster in the rope that was tied around my waist. I realized it wasn’t completely secure. I slowed down. I’d been in such a hurry that I’d failed to double check the rope, and just as I started to regret it, the victim I had on my back fell off. I rushed to extend my fingers, but he slipped right through them and hit the ground with a loud thunk.
The sound was still echoing in my ears when the rubberneckers started gathering, their voices full of shock and blame. I dropped the rest of the way feeling bitter, and undid the rope coiled around me after my feet hit the ground.
As I stared dumbfounded at the scene, with the victim’s limbs stretched out and joints twisted at impossible angles, a shadow stretched over the forlorn figure.
“One victim deceased, firefighter error.”
The shadow belonged to Niimori Mihaya, who’d graduated from firefighter’s academy in the same class as me. He laughed at my blunder.
“Don’t say deceased,” I told him, “it’s a dummy.”
They’d selected this mixed-use building for today’s training, and had even written up some legit-looking documents. We’d behaved under the assumption that a fire really had broken out. But since it was a training exercise, all the victims were played by dummies.
The ones we used most often were Adam, Beckham, and Catherine, but the one I’d dropped was one we didn’t use too much – Daigoro. They’d been given names in English alphabetical order, ABCD, but why D was the only Japanese name I don’t know. One of the guys who’d been there a while once told me the name of a since-scrapped “E” dummy had been Héroine.
“Good thing it is training. If this was the real thing, he’d be dead. As usual, you ignore orders, and put your colleagues and the victims in danger. Do you have a learning disability?”
Cutting off our field of vision with all those smoke bombs, packing every room full of cardboard boxes, wrapping a normally 60 kilo dummy in a sand bag – the other crew must have wanted to make things harder for us.
Our training today had been a competition with the other crew, to see who could rescue all the victims the fastest.
The winners would get to participate in a firefighter’s convention that was attended by the prefectural governor and other such important personages. The lessons and training that came along with the convention were a pain, but you got to show off for your family and supervisors, so the guys who had families and kids always wanted to go.
Thanks to my dropping a victim, however, our squad would lose no matter what our time was.
But I wasn’t about to consent to being criticized by the likes of Niimori – he did office work, it had nothing to do with him.
“Don’t come over talking shit at me, just ’cause you like to rile me up.”
“I’m only saying what the newbies can’t.” Niimori turned a sympathetic eye towards one of the newbies who’d come up behind me without my noticing. “Having such an incompetent senior much be a real pain.”
I was pissed, but as I was removing my stuffy face mask, I heard my name being called by a voice filled with malice and rage, and echoing up to me like it came from the bottom of a deep, deep well.
With a gasp, I ran over to the commander, who’d been observing the training.
He was shorter than me, but his presence was immeasurably intimidating. He’d gotten so angry with me once when I was a newbie I thought I was going to die, and now whenever I stood in front of that dark face, I wanted to run just on reflex.
“You try this same shit next time and you won’t be showing your face in front of me ever again, you got that!”
I could see his clenched fists shaking, as he tried to keep himself in check, since they’d banned corporal punishment. I swallowed hard.
Standing there at strict attention, taking his anger, I could see Niimori in an apparently good mood on the edge of my field of vision.
He’d always been like that. Whenever I got yelled at, there he was with those sadistic black eyes, narrow as a cat with a full stomach, smiling like he’d won a prize.
It had been trivial in our academy days, borderline annoying at most. As far as Niimori was concerned, I was a “useless idiot,” and as far as I was concerned, Niimori had always been a “disagreeable jerk.” The unfortunate thing was, he was pretty valuable.
He looked like a fox, and had the heart of a particularly vicious raccoon, but he always acted as sweet as the family kitten, and wore the mask of a loyal hound. Superiors and colleagues alike were fooled by that dog mask, and women were bewitched by those fox looks. He was adored by his juniors, even though he was basically terrible at looking after people, and I, as the only one who hated him, ended up chided by our colleagues, and told I should be more reliable.
“You can’t manage your tanks, you can’t tie the rope properly. A newbie straight out of the academy could do it better than that. How is it your junior ended up scolding you?”
I hadn’t been the one to tie the rope, but I certainly had been the one negligent enough not to double check it, so I had nothing to do except hear him out with a meek expression on my face, watching the corners of Niimori’s lips curve up as he stood behind the commander. It was like watching a cat relaxing in a spot just out of reach of some dog’s leash, and suddenly I had a lot of sympathy for that poor dog.
I was overjoyed to finally become a firefighter when I graduated, and happy to be done with training, too, but I was just as pleased to be separated from Niimori. It must have been some kind of karmic retribution that we both got assigned to the same station.
And honestly I could put up with it all again, I really could, but what ticked me off was how he fooled everybody else.
Niimori was a small man, the type to come to blows with me over the arrangement of beds in the dorms, and he was strikingly lacking in cooperation skills. On top of which, he had a shallow personality, and a short temper, although he was good at hiding those particular faults.
“Are you listening? Adachi! You made a mistake even a newbie wouldn’t make, do you get it!?”
“And as for you, Tsuno!”
The commander bellowed at Tsuno, too, a junior from my squad who’d been part of the search on the first floor.
After a general scolding, it was decided that our penalty would be to clean everything up.
Dejected, I turned to Daigoro, still face up on the asphalt, and heaved a sigh.
“The commander went pretty easy on you,” Niimori said. “If it were me, you would’ve had to make yourself scarce pretty damn quick.”
“Shut up. What’s someone from the command center doing here anyway. You belong on the third floor, don’t you? Why don’t you get going.”
He’d probably been watching us from the windows and had come down to tease me, but even during intermissions, command center people were generally supposed to stay in the command center.
Niimori hadn’t left the line of duty entirely, but he had traded his face mask in for a headset, and I wondered if that was the reason he was less concerned about the rules than he had been before.
Of course, I’d been in such a hurry I’d dropped a victim, so I was in no position to be complaining about the way anyone else did their job.
Especially when that anyone was Niimori. I could imagine that coming back to me two-fold.
“Maybe you should be the one assigned to the command center, not me. With you out and about, even lives that could be saved are lost.”
Niimori looked down at the sand-stuffed dummy and turned on his heels.
I knew I’d never be able to win the argument, but I wouldn’t be able to settle down if I didn’t speak my peace.
I started to chase after Niimori as he started back towards the office, but I heard the commander’s angry shouting. “Adachi! Where the hell do you think you’re going!?” I halted.
The sermon I’d thought had ended started up again. The result was that Tsuno and I would be sweeping as well as tidying up. To be honest, it was a job for the newbies, but there wasn’t much I could do about that at the moment.
“Man, I must really look like an idiot to all the guys under me doing this kinda stuff.”
We opened the training building’s windows – the place was still full of smoke – and while it aired out, we carted out the cardboard boxes the other shift had apparently carted in. They must have been supplied by grocery stores in the area, because they all had trade names and catch phrases written on them – Filipine-grown Bananas, Delicious Cherries, Do more with Maca.
“Not any more idiotic than dropping a victim. Seriously, Adachi, what the heck happened back there? If cleaning’s all we’ve got to do after that, I’m not even going to try and dodge that bullet. Let’s just be grateful it stopped where it did.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry.” I apologized to Tsuno, who’d already started cleaning up, and heaved a sigh. “Speaking of, what were you getting yelled at for?” He was pretty cheeky for a junior, but he’d always been like that.
“I didn’t step up when my junior didn’t do his collar up properly on his fire-proof jacket. Nothing like you, Adachi, dropping a victim, not withdrawing when your bombay went off, not bothering with the hook and ladder even though this was hook and ladder training exercise…”
I’m going to be hearing about this one for a while, I thought, filled with regret for falling into a panic mere tens of minutes previously. I could see this story being handed down to future generations, brought up over and over whenever someone failed.
When I was a newbie, I heard a story about one of the higher-ups who turned out to be an unexpectedly devoted husband. He once mistook a wake-up call from a supervisor for one from his wife, and told the guy, “I love you so much, honey, let me sleep a little longer.” People still tell that story to this day. Actually, the guy ended up as battalion chief here.
But his mistake was funny, so it’s fine. Mine was nothing to laugh at.
“Although, Adachi, you have been awfully weird lately. You’ve got it together on calls, but you’re making a lot of careless mistakes with paperwork and all the day-to-day stuff. You’re in such a rush you’re pulling stuff I didn’t even do when I was a newbie.”
“Shut up, will you,” I responded, and picked up a can from a spent smoke bomb.
I didn’t even panic like this when I was in school. I’ve never really been that afraid of fire, even when I was a newbie.
But a room packed with smoke, a victim laying face up, my bombay’s alarm, the withdraw order – I couldn’t judge anything rationally in the face of all that.
“You’re still stuck on that thing with Niimori, aren’t you?”
I didn’t know how I was supposed to answer that, so I just kept working.
Abruptly, Tsuno muttered, “Rumor is, he requested his transfer to the command center ’cause he was so traumatized, but who knows if that’s true.” It wasn’t clear if he was asking a question or just talking to himself.
I pretended not to hear and kept my hands busy, trying to run away from the memories of that day that kept resurrecting themselves in broken snippets in my head.
Niimori Mihaya. 2
The day we were assigned to this department, Niimori took one look at both our names lined up on the nap room label, and frowned.
Like any other job, our first day had ended with a simple self-introduction and a tour of the facilities.
After a general explanation of the work, there were excursions to the command center and the rooftop heliport, assignment to a personal desk in the office, instructions on the use of the mess hall, and from there we were taken to the nap room.
In our particular department, the nap room is a room set aside for two people at a time. Well, we call it a room, but you could barely fit two tatami mats in there, and it’s filled with two single-person futons spread out so we can sleep. You’re allowed to stow your stuff in one half of the closet, which is divided into top and bottom. Firefighters are on duty for twenty-four hours at a time, so if you’re on duty for any particular day, your shift goes until the following morning.
You and your partner alternate using the room, and the guys who share the room are called shift buddies. Basically, they match people up based on seniority and age. Which is why it would have been pointless to argue about Niimori and I being shift buddies – we were both greenhorns. It wasn’t just the room, either, we shared a rotating storage locker, too.
“Why is it I have to put up with being stuck in a room with you again?”
Niimori had muttered it, but I’d been thinking the same thing. At the academy, we’d lived together for six months in the men’s dorms, and just when I thought we’d been set free, here we were again – of course I was dejected.
We were only going to be shift buddies for a year, while our schedules were tied together, but it was an unpleasant memory. Having to share space every single day with a disagreeable jerk like him was incredibly stressful, even if he was rather tidy.
Plus, we weren’t just assigned to the same station, our detestable yet somehow unavoidable relationship spilled over into all kinds of things.
Our competitions changed from grades to training results. Climbing, zip line speed, even weights in the training room became a contest. It was apparently hilarious the way the normally cold Niimori only showed his competitive spirit with me, because superiors and colleagues alike poked fun at us both on a daily basis.
For example, there was this nurse I fell for at first sight, so some of the guys who’d been here a while told me in detail how taken she was with Niimori. Then when I got a commendation from the prefecture, it was those same guys who got Niimori all agitated about it.
“You two are worse than oil and water, you’re like oil and fire. Put the two of you together, and something’s going up in flames.”
The commander’s summation of our relationship wasn’t wrong, but actually we worked surprisingly well together on calls.
We could convey our intentions just by looking at each other. We were so connected, we would just naturally divide up the labor without having to confirm anything verbally. Like, if there were children in addition to the adult victims, me and my scary face would handle the adults, while Niimori with his gentle expressions would soothe the kids.
Thanks to our long-standing competition, we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses forwards and backwards. I could rely on his judgments on a call, so even when his directions seemed haughty, I didn’t disobey. And he could rely on my technique, so he trusted me with important tasks. He never stopped being a disagreeable jerk, but on the scene, in an actual fire, he was a reliable partner. Surely, Niimori thought of me like that too. Until that day.
Our relationship collapsed during a factory fire that took place last October in the neighboring prefecture.
It was a large-scale blaze, with dozens of victims, and hook-and-ladder and chemical trucks from several different departments.
Normally, fires that occur inside a certain prefecture will be handled by the department within that prefecture, but depending on the scale and location, they can request assistance. This was one of those.
Several people had already died by the time we arrived on the scene. We started searching the adjoining chemical factory. There hadn’t been any confirmed fires there yet, but we were patrolling the giant maze of a factory in pairs, looking for missing persons. The factory’s interior was huge though, and we hadn’t gotten very far when my bombay alarm started going off. Looking back, I should have evacuated immediately.
But as it was, I had noticed a half-open door with a name plate attached – Control Room.
“Let’s withdraw,” Niimori ordered, but I shook my head and pointed at the door.
“Let’s at least check in here,” I said, putting my hand on the door. “We’ll take a peek, then we’ll withdraw.” The room was narrow, so we didn’t realize there wasn’t anyone in there until I got into it. I was just turning around, relieved, when a sudden blast sent me into the air.
I was tossed into the middle of the room and hit my head on the floor. I was told later that a tank in the factory had exploded, but at the time I didn’t have a clue what had happened.
Ignoring the pain in my head, I rushed back to my feet and went out into the hall.
I couldn’t tell if there was any fire, and the smoke had been pretty thick for a while now, obscuring my vision. Niimori should have been right there, just outside the door, but he was nowhere to be found, and I remember my hands going sweaty inside my gloves. I had an awful premonition.
I was cupping my hands to my mouth and shouting when I noticed another squad bent forward over the handrail and yelling in the direction of the first floor landing.
Forcing my shaking legs to move, I peered over the railing. There was Niimori, face up on the ground.
Without really thinking about it, I grabbed one of the other guy’s arms like I was about to jump.
“Idiot, how are you getting down there? Look at how far it is.”
“So I should just pretend I don’t see him!?”
The guy ignored me and radioed the squad that was already doing search and rescue on the first floor.
“There’s no way to get down there from here. We’ll pull back for now.”
“We can’t leave him there!”
“Evacuate first. Leave the rescue to the other squad. We can come back for him after we switch tanks.”
I didn’t have much oxygen left. Even if I did head down for the rescue, it’d be pointless – my tank’d run out on the way back.
I understood it, but I couldn’t consent to it. As I put my hands on my carabiner to start my climb down, I met Niimori’s eyes through my face mask, almost unconsciously.
Neither his lips nor his face moved an inch, but I felt like I could hear his voice. “Don’t.”
Harikawa, my squad chief, reprimanded me – “Don’t disobey a direct order!” – and I complied, still conflicted.
In the end, Niimori was rescued by the other squad, but by the time they finally got there, the flames had crawled up a line of fuel that had leaked out of his tank and were right up next to him.
“Thank God I wasn’t rescued by you,” he said to me with a sarcastic smile as they carried him to the ambulance. “Having to accept help from you would be the embarrassment of my life.”
That life had been saved, but Niimori had broken his lumbar vertebrae, and he was confined to the hospital.
He wasn’t allowed back on the line for about six months after that, since he had to wear a back brace, and in April he was put in the command center as part of a personnel shuffle.
He’d probably requested the change himself, to give his body a rest, but it wasn’t unusual for squad members to get some experience in the command center, which is where they took incoming reports and directed fire trucks and ambulances. What was odd was that Niimori was far younger than normal to be assigned there.
And so rumors started flying between the younger guys, including Tsuno. They all wondered if he’d turned to office work because of some mental trauma, or perhaps lingering physical effects. There were plenty of firefighters who’d been injured, after all, or who’d seen something tragic at a fire and been traumatized.
But Niimori’s attitude towards me never changed, not even after that incident.
So when he returned to the department, I stuck to the same attitude I’d always had, too.
I don’t know if Niimori really didn’t care, or if he was just putting up a front. But either way, I behaved as if everything was normal. Can’t say I really wanted to think about any weakness on Niimori’s part.
The truth, though, was that I’d always regretted it. I should have stayed with him back then, even if it was just until the squad got there. Really, I should have just done what he said when he told me to withdraw.
If I had, he wouldn’t have broken anything, and he wouldn’t have had to stay off the line.
When I saw that dummy in training not moving, face up on the ground, I remembered it all, whether I wanted to or not.
I couldn’t forget the look in Niimori’s eyes in that moment, when he signaled me not to come down there.
He was resigned to die, and I knew it.
- ~130 lbs, as opposed to ~175.
- 安達光輔 = Easy or cheap, To arrive or obtain something, Light, To help, and 新森水集 = New, Forest, Water To gather