Jeff Walton checked his cell phone to see who was calling. Normally, he did not accept personal calls while working, but when Jeff saw his daughter's cell number, he decided to answer. It was after three and Rachel would be out of school and could have a problem.
"Hello, Pumpkin! What can I do for my little girl today?" asked Jeff with a smile. Rachel knew he would do almost anything for her. Jeff had never tried to convince her otherwise, although sometimes he wondered if he should have.
"Daddy! There's a fire at the preschool! Morgan Jr. and some other kids are trapped inside the building and can't get out!" cried Rachel.
"Are you there right now, Rachel?" Jeff demanded quickly, forgetting all the teasing he had planned for her.
"Yes, I am, but they won't let anyone get close. There're flames coming out the roof!
"I'll be right there, Sweetheart! Have you called your mom and Morgan?" asked Jeff.
"Not yet, Dad!" cried Rachel.
"Well call them now and tell them what's happening. Don't try to enter that building, Rachel. I'll be there in a couple minutes," promise her dad.
"Okay, Daddy, but hurry!" whimpered Rachel just before the connection was terminated.
Jeff didn't even bother picking up his tools. He barely bothered to lock the front door as he sprinted for his truck. As he sped down the highway, Jeff considered the situation. The preschool Morgan Jr. attended was on the third floor of a former elementary school in town. Jeff had attended the school himself. Back then, it held kindergarten through eighth grades.
The school district had built a new school almost twenty years ago. A developer purchased the old building and turned it small professional offices on the bottom two floors, with a preschool on the upper level. He recalled the heavy opaque glass windows with wire mesh inside. Jeff recalled how he had witnessed an eighth grade boy try to throw a folding chair through a window once. It bounced back and hit the boy in the leg, breaking his fibula. The window pane itself wasn't even cracked. They bottom half of each window was stationary and did not open. When he was an eighth grader, Jeff had often had the task of taking a long pole with a small knob on a hook and sliding into the upper window sash and lowering it about two feet. That was the extent of the building's air conditioning at the time. The actual open part of the window was still over six feet off the floor. It allowed no opportunity for a child to fall out, or even be thrown out when the window was open. To the best of Jeff's recollection, the same windows were in use at present.
It was unlikely any of the staff would have the strength or the means to break through a window to escape. If people were indeed trapped, as Rachel had indicated, it had to mean that the stairway and the emergency stairs were in some way unsafe, or inaccessible. The building was well over a hundred years old and of wood construction. Even with a sprinkler system, Jeff knew there would be no stopping a fire if it had a good start.
Mulling it over as he raced to the scene, Jeff pondered why his daughter had called him before calling the boy's father. Morgan Jr. was her brother, but not Jeff's son. In fact, the toddler's conception was the catalyst for Jeff divorcing Rachel's mother, Diane. Jeff had a vasectomy shortly after Rachel was born. When Diane turned up pregnant, she didn't even attempt to convince Jeff that the baby was his. She simply packed up her things and moved in with Morgan Hanson, her boss and the owner of the car dealership where Diane worked. She took Rachel, who was just twelve at the time, with her.
Jeff had been devastated. He never suspected he was a cuckold until Diane confronted him with her pregnancy and told him she was moving in with Hanson. Jeff had been blindsided. He went through a year of depression. He drank too much and almost lost his business. His shame was tangible. Although he seldom heard any one refer to his broken marriage, he knew his small home town was abuzz with his failed marriage. Hanson had cuckolded Jeff, and then took his wife away from him completely, and seemingly with no effort.
Jeff had even entered therapy but it did little to relieve the pain and shame he felt. He had been headed for disaster. He had no illusions about that. Then he met Laura. She had moved into town a year after Jeff's divorce. She was a widow with two daughters in their early teens. Laura bought a local diner and transformed it into a very good restaurant. Jeff sold and installed the new appliances for her business. The two got along well and he finally worked up the nerve to ask her out. They were married a year later. Laura was incredible. She was smart and sexy and totally devoted to Jeff. It would have been perfect if he didn't have to see Diane and Morgan so often. Jeff loved his daughter, Rachel, and refused to allow his shame, embarrassment, and anger at Diane and Morgan to prevent him from having a close relationship with her.
That included Rachel frequently stopping at Jeff's house. He and Laura lived just a half mile from Rachel's high school. The joker in the deck for Jeff was that the preschool Morgan Jr. attended was located just a few blocks past Jeff's house. Rachel often arrived with her little brother in tow. Jeff struggled mightily to treat the boy well, but it wasn't easy. Laura realized how difficult the situation was for him. It was as if Morgan Hanson was rubbing Jeff's failures in his face every time Jeff saw the boy.
The thing that really frightened Jeff was the hatred he felt for Rachel's little brother, Morgan, Jr. Jeff knew it wasn't the boy's fault that Diane slept with Morgan and conceived him. It was just that the child represented Jeff's cuckoldry, as well as his failure to keep his wife and family. He always made an effort to not be cruel to the boy when he saw him, which in Jeff's view was far too often.
Now Rachel had turned to him in an impossible situation, expecting her dad to somehow save her brother. Jeff considered the irony of the situation as he kept his foot pressed heavily against the accelerator. Did he even want the boy to survive? Diane and Morgan could spend a few years in the agony that Jeff had gone through. Even as the thought occurred to him, Jeff dismissed it. The boy was Rachel's brother, and Jeff would walk through hell for his daughter.
Just as he raced through an intersection, Jeff noticed a phone company bucket truck headed his way. Jeff slammed on the brakes and jammed his pickup into reverse as soon as it stopped. He quickly backed up to where he could drive down the side road.
"What the hell, Jeff?" grinned Ralph Evans. "Where's the fire? You're driving like some kind of crazy man!"
"There's a fire at "Growing Pains" preschool, Ralph!" shouted Jeff before Ralph had even finished his greeting. "People are trapped but with that truck of yours, we might be able to get some kids out of that building! Will you help me?"
"Damn straight!" agreed the big man behind the wheel without hesitation. "Lead the way and show me where you want me to park it, Jeff. You know you can count on me!"
Jeff was already in reverse and backing through the intersection before Ralph completed the sentence. Jeff watched in his mirror as Ralph's truck tipped a little as it raced around the corner and swung onto the main highway. It was just a minute later that Jeff pulled in across the street from the burning building with Ralph right behind him.
Jeff was stunned to see the entire east wall had collapsed. That wall had held the outside fire escape. The west end of the building had flames coming through the roof. If anyone was alive on the third floor, they had to be somewhere in the middle of the building. Jeff motioned Ralph to pull in as close to the burning building as he could. As he directed Ralph, Tim Jenkins, a member of the volunteer fire company and a fire police officer ran up to him.
"This is bad Jeff! There're at least three kids and a teacher not accounted for. The first two floors are evacuated. The fire trucks were at a fuckin' brush fire out on route 56 when the alarm was sounded. They're still over five goddamn minutes out! The flames and smoke have the stairway cut off, and I don't know what the hell to do!"
"Just keep the bystanders back, Tim, and the road clear for the fire trucks. Ralph and I are going to try to swing up to the windows and get the folks out that way. Be ready to help if we manage to get any of them to the ground!" ordered Jeff with authority.
Jeff knew Tim was a good man simply overcome with the responsibility, and fear of the outcome. He needed direction and he would follow orders to the letter. Jeff saw Rachel start to run toward him and he violently motioned for her to remain where she was. She immediately stopped and tried to smile at her dad. It was not lost on Jeff as he turned to tell Ralph he was in position. Ralph clambered out of the cab.
"Do you have a heavy hammer, Ralph?" asked Jeff. "We need to get up to that window, break it out and see if we can find anyone inside."
Ralph reached into a compartment and withdrew an eight pound sledge hammer and started for the bucket with Jeff right behind him.
"Shit, Jeff, I can tell you right now that we won't reach that window. With that retaining wall in the way, I couldn't get close enough. We'll be about five feet or so short," predicted Ralph grimly as he climbed into the bucket with Jeff following.
"Get us as close as you can!" replied Jeff. "We'll make it work."
Both men felt the intense heat radiate from the building as they began their ascent. The windows on that side of the building were closed but smoke was curling around the sashes. Both men realized that the upper floor had to be pretty damn hot!
A crowd had begun to form. The mood was somber to the point of terror as word quickly spread that three children and a teacher were trapped on the third floor. One of the old men standing near Rachel expressed the opinion that a gas leak must have occurred with an explosion following it. The wall had been knocked off the end of the building and the intense fire followed immediately.
Then a woman on the other side of Rachel told how she lived just up the road and she had a couple windows blown out in the blast. Then she announced that they should have kept using the coal furnace for heat, as that never blew up!
By that time Jeff and Ralph had extended the bucket as close to a window as they could get. Ralph had been correct with his estimate of how far they would be from the window.
"Give me that sledge and hang on my belt, Ralph. Don't let me fall. I need both arms to swing the hammer," stated Jeff as he climbed up to perch on the edge of the bucket.
"Shit!" growled Ralph as he engulfed the back of Jeff's belt in his big paw and gabbed on a hand rail on the side of the bucket with the other, determined that no force on earth would make him release the man depending on him with his life.
"Oh my God!" groaned a woman in the crowd next to Rachel. "Those men are risking their lives! Look how high they are and how the one is standing on the edge of that bucket with nothing but his friend keeping him from falling!"
That was when Rachel heard her mother scream. She had pulled into the empty lot near where the crowd had gathered. Rachel turned and rushed to keep her mother from racing to the building.
"Mom! You can't get in that way. Several men have already tried the stairs. Dad's trying to get in that window. You have to stay here and wait. Dad will get Morgan out okay! You know Dad!"
Diane wiped her eyes and followed her daughter's gaze to the two men perched so high in the bucket. She gave an involuntary gasp.
Jeff hefted the sledge and considered the situation. They were rapidly running out of time, if they had not already. He knew the window would be tough to break and that it was better to swing too hard then too easy. With that thought, he brought the heavy hammer up and around with every bit of strength he could muster. Ralph grimaced with the effort it took to keep Jeff in place as momentum tried to take him forward.
The hammer went through the window and disappeared as Jeff lost his grip on the handle.
"Fuck!" yelled Jeff as he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. The hole was about the size of a volleyball and too high to reach. The wire mesh was doing was it was designed for!
Jeff and Ralph contemplated the hole in the window for about five seconds. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar and the entire window, sash and all, flew from the building, striking Jeff on the shoulder as it flew by, knocking him backward.
Rachel, Diane and the entire assembled crowd went dead silent as they watched Ralph somehow hold on to Jeff as he fell over the edge of the bucket. At the same time, a huge ball of flame blasted through the air where Jeff's head had been a few seconds before! No one spoke as they saw Ralph give a mighty heave and pull Jeff back into the basket. As soon as it was apparent that Jeff was alright, the crowd began cheering and yelling encouragement. They saw Jeff clap Ralph on the shoulder and quickly climb back up on the edge of the bucket, again with Ralph holding on to his belt. The flame had retreated and Jeff grabbed on the window sill and pulled himself into the burning building, with a little push from Ralph on his shoe soles.
Once inside, Jeff crouched down below the smoke and hurried across the floor, yelling as he moved. The heat was intense and the smoke was extremely thick. Jeff dropped to his knees to remain below the thick smoke and then gave another shout.
"Over here!" called a female voice. "Help me with the children!"
Jeff made out some forms by a large desk and crawled to them as quickly as he could. A middle aged woman had with her back to the desk with three toddlers gathered tightly to her chest. Jeff quickly surveyed the room and urged the woman to hand him two of the kids and start crawling to the window with the remaining child. The air from the open window was feeding the flames and they were spreading rapidly across the smoke filled room.
The woman moved surprising fast and Jeff actually had trouble keeping up as he held two crying toddlers with one arm and placed the other hand on the floor to help keep his balance.
Jeff knew the window was too far from Ralph and the bucket to be able to hand the kids to him. When they reached the widow Jeff quickly explained to the woman what he wanted her to do. He felt a tremendous appreciation for her strength and courage as she nodded in agreement. She allowed Jeff to pick her up and as gently as possible, toss her out onto the window sill. He wrapped one hand in the waist of her jeans as she sat on the sill. Jeff swung his free arm around and grabbed a little girl by the front of her shirt and picked her up and handed her to the lady on the sill. He held the woman with both hands as she leaned as far out as she could with the child. When she had her as far as she could manage to swing her, the woman released the little girl.
Rachel and Diane stood together, caught in the drama as they watched Jeff crawl through the window and into the burning building. It seemed like he was gone a very long time and smoke was billowing out the top of the gaping hole that the window had occupied shortly before Jeff's entrance.
Suddenly the crowd saw a woman seem to emerge from the smoke, float out and land precariously on the window sill! It was so sudden and unexpected; it took several seconds for the growing crowd to react.
"That's Vanessa Thompson!" cried an onlooker. "She works at the preschool!"
The woman now known as Vanessa Thompson seemed to reach back and suddenly a small girl appeared in her hands. The crowd once again went silent as the woman swung the child as far from her body as possible and dropped her!
Ralph Evans had been getting nervous waiting for Jeff to reappear. The heat was becoming unbearable and the fire seemed to be growing louder. He knew that couldn't be a good thing. Suddenly he saw a woman perch on the window sill. She was too high and far way for Ralph to reach. Suddenly she swung a little girl out and released her! Ralph knew fear as he stretched his arms out and caught the girl. It had been much easier than he imagined. He barely placed the child down in the bucket before another little girl was dropped at him. Once again, Ralph made the catch and gently put the child down near the first one.
Jeff had handed the woman the two little girls. He turned for the little boy, who he had identified as Morgan Jr. and he was gone!
"Morgan wandered off!" Jeff yelled to be heard above the roar of the fire. "I have to let go of you to find him. Hang on!"
The woman nodded her understanding, so Jeff released his hold on her and crawled off to find Morgan. Jeff knew he could not have wandered too far. He soon saw the boy through the thickening smoke and made his way to him. Grabbing the boy, Jeff started back to the window.