They stood huddled together like a lost flock of sheep. Confusion and chaos was everywhere. Andrea felt as if the glaring lights pierced right through her skull. Curious people asked questions but she ignored them. She hadn't stayed in the apartment yet and the only person she'd met was the manager. To anyone there she was just another curious on-looker.
Andrea stared at the smoldering shell of where she'd planned to live and felt hollow. What few things she owned in life were inside waiting for her. She gave up so much in her divorce that she couldn't afford to lose more. Each item she chose fit into her new life and represented who she was. Yet it meant nothing to her except for that one container in the closet.
She never thought it through before she broke from the crowd. Determination spurred her on even as she darted around hoses and piles of rubble. People seemed to stop moving and the night became silent as Andrea scrambled up the sidewalk.
Todd Ingram felt the exhaustion in every bone of his body as he sat on the bumper of the truck cradling a bottle of water. Several stations arrived to find a raging fire and the entire crew worked hard to knock it out. Now it was several hours later and the last hot spots were just soggy piles of rubble. Todd saw the girl right after he took his last swig of the icy cold liquid.
"Hey, you can't go in there," he yelled to the disappearing figure.
Andrea ignored the shout as she rushed through the dark hole near the front door to her apartment building. Fear struck as the rancid odor of smoke and burned furniture assaulted her but she continued.
"Don't go any further!" Todd picked his way through the debris and sloppy mess left behind by the intense gallons of water. Sweat poured off his body under the weight of his gear. Somewhere the thought registered that this young woman must be an athlete from the way she maneuvered around the obstacles with such ease. He didn't realize at the time that her sheer determination carried her on.
The oppressive heat and dread began to slow Andrea down. Her apartment door had a gaping hole in it and leaned at an awkward angle. Water covered the floor and dripped down the walls as she took a step inside to retrieve her most prized possession. She knew right where it was, too. Another minute and she'd be out of there again.
"Didn't you hear me back there?" Todd asked as he grabbed her arm. "It's too dangerous for anyone to be in here."
"You don't understand. I have to get it," she said as she tried to pull free.
"We're leaving before this place collapses on us."
She broke loose of his grip and ran into her bedroom. Part of the ceiling blocked her way to the closet but she ducked under it and crawled the last few feet. The container sat in the corner with insulation and plaster layered on it. Andrea pulled it to her just as she felt a tug on her legs.
"Let's go!" She heard the urgency in his voice and paused at the reality of their situation.
Her pant leg caught on something and stopped her progress back to where he waited in anger and trepidation. Her hands shook as she worked the container loose and stood up to face him. Todd shoved her ahead of him a few feet at a time back through her apartment and into the hallway. Worry masked the exhaustion on his face.
Andrea noticed the sounds this time. Water trickled down what was left of walls and dripped from the ceiling. Piles of boards and belongings hissed from the heat buried within. Voices from outside echoed as if in a far away canister. Her legs buckled at the sheer destruction the fire had left behind. An odd haze of smoke and steam clouded the air to fill her lungs as she tried to breathe.
"This way," Todd said as he pointed to her right.
She followed his lead this time as he stepped over and around beams and braces. Later she would wonder at how she'd ever made it to her apartment in the first place. Andrea clutched the container to her chest and trudged on. Breathing became difficult and her feet weighed a ton. She saw the fading figure in front of her disappear as her vision clouded and she fell to her knees.
The sudden shifting in the floor brought a scream from deep in her throat. Todd felt the movement and knew in his gut they were in trouble. Ten seconds was all he needed to get them to safety. Two was all he had before chaos erupted. Every instinct in him screamed to grab the girl but she was nowhere in sight.
An explosion shook the building with such force that it brought the remainder of the roof down. The floor opened and a giant cavern sucked him in. Todd felt himself tumbling through the emptiness and wondered if this was how he was going to die. Boards crashed into his arms and legs until he felt numb as he landed at an awkward angle in the hollowed out space. His last thought was of the girl as parts of the floor above him covered his injured body.
Andrea felt the crushing weight of debris above her and thought she was going to die. The space had an eerie silence to it so opposite the resounding echoes of the explosion just moments ago. Her breathing escalated as she went over the moments before the blast in her mind. She feared for the firefighter's safety but tried to convince herself he made it out all right.
It would all be her fault if he died or suffered any injuries. Andrea knew he'd been several feet ahead of her when the building blew up. That little bit of encouragement was all she needed to imagine the man making it out to the yard. Her own death wouldn't be a great loss to the world anyway, she decided.
Her vision blurred from the combination of the tears gathering in them and the dust in the air. She tried to move her left arm but only her fingers had space to wiggle. A slight shifting in the beams made her heart beat out of control. The reality of her situation slammed into her in that second. This wasn't television with happy endings for everyone.
A terrified scream threatened to erupt from her throat. Instead, Andrea coughed and choked from the grittiness clogging its way. Panic made her kick out at anything she could in the blackness surrounding her. A searing pain in the right knee stopped any further movement for several minutes.
She moved everything slower this time. Andrea felt around in the tiny space with her right arm until she hit something solid. It shocked her to recognize that the precious container was still with her. Knowing it was safe comforted Andrea as she passed out amidst the rubble a moment later.
The explosion had firefighters scrambling for safety. Hoses and equipment littered the yard as dust and smoke filled the sky above what remained of the apartment building. Only seconds passed before they turned back and began their job once more. Trey felt the energy flowing from all the crews called to fight this blaze. The latest blast shook the ground and crumbled more of the ruined structure.
This new development frightened the onlookers so much some of them screamed and moved further away. Several of the tenants stood speechless as they tried to comprehend what was happening. Local news stations fought to get quotes from anyone associated with the fire.
"Stand back, everyone," the young firefighter commanded. "You need to stay out of the way, people."
Trey worked at keeping the growing number of interested reporters and worried family members back from danger. Hours on the job made him hot and tired but he kept his irritation at bay. It always amazed Trey the way fires brought out the ignorance in some people.
"Can you tell us if there —"
"What was the cause of the —"
"— arson is suspected?"
Arms thrust microphones towards him and spit out the questions. Trey just shook his head and ignored them all. He didn't have any answers but it wasn't his job to talk to the press, either. This was his third year on the force in Colby and he loved what he did. Except for when he had to do crowd control, that was. He didn't argue though, since it was all part of it.
He'd wanted to be a fireman ever since third grade when the captain of the local station gave their class a speech on safety. His parents just chuckled at first and figured it was a phase. Trey later became intrigued with the patterns left behind in the destruction. His goal was to become part of the investigation team that worked in this area. Alarms rang in his head that this fire would be the cause of more despair than just lost belongings.
Andrea tried to distinguish the sounds that exploded in her head as she came to. She opened her eyes but saw nothing except blackness. Panic gripped her entire being at the frightening thought of not being able to see. The nausea threatened to fill her throat as she tried to scream yet only a silent whimper came out.
Muted voices broke into her terror at the same time the overpowering stench of the fire filled her nostrils. Everything came back to her in an instant, including the explosion. Andrea remembered then that the crashing ceiling and walls had collapsed around her. The damp air sent chills over her skin as she worked at calming herself. The deep breath sent a stabbing pain through her chest like none she'd ever felt before.
She waited until the worst was over and thought back to when she ran into the building. Her apartment was on the first floor but that didn't mean she was there now. It was possible she'd fallen several feet when the blast hit.
.... There is more of this story ...