It took very little to discover the fire was below them, the faint odor of smoke detectable once they were into the stair well. If there had been some doubt, it would not have lasted long as they met a man half way to the second floor who was heading up. He had a baby wrapped in his arms and he was trying to soothe the crying. Ella asked him if he knew which floor the fire was on, and he gave a short reply in Spanish. Ella had never been so grateful for her mother tongue and repeated her request so he’d understand. The man gave a deep sigh of relief and launched into a full explanation.
Translating for Carol’s sake as he went, Ella relayed that the fire was on the first floor and that he, Mr. Sanches, had already given his extinguisher to someone else but he could not leave his baby to go and help. He did not know the extent of the fire but as the smoke had become more noticeable, he had to get them further up and away from it.
Ella thanked him for his help and let him continue, though she and Carol exchanged a look that agreed going further up would be of no use if the fire wasn’t put out. They continued down to the first floor amid the echo of shouts and the sound of running from the flights of stairs above them.
Ella was unprepared for what lay beyond the door out of the stairwell and onto the first floor hallway; the smoke, the heat, the calls from one to another as those fighting organized themselves; the billow of white powder from the extinguishers as one by one they were emptied and another fetched. Was it the fire roaring, or the pulsing of her own blood in her ears which seemed to muffle all else? She wasn’t really sure what she had expected to find here, but this wasn’t it; this was a war.
Her mind watched from a distance, unconnected to the battle for the lives of everyone in this building. As she withdrew from the present, she bumped against a memory from what felt like a lifetime ago. It welled up and consumed her, and in that moment she was six years old in a slash field, running toward her little brother’s cries.
Then, her blood had also pulsed in her ears, smoke stung her eyes and choked her throat. A cousin had been left to mind the younger children but fell asleep in the afternoon heat and Rodrigo had wandered into the field that was being burned for next season’s planting.
Surrounded by fire, she faintly recalled hearing voices yelling, unsure which direction they were coming from. She was being picked up by her father, passed to her mother. Ella had forgotten until this moment that it had happened at all. She didn’t remember either of them having any injuries, perhaps that’s why she had put it out of her mind so completely. There was no escape from the memory of it now.
It took the touch of a hand to draw Ella back enough to realize Carol was saying her name. “What?”
“Over there,” she said, pointing the opposite direction in the hall where it looked as if someone was organizing the fighters. There were many extinguishers, some empty to one side, others being readied and traded for the empties. A woman rushed from the stairwell over to the man organizing, handing over three more extinguishers.
“That’s the last from the sixth floor,” she said.
The man nodded, speaking with the clipped style of someone without any seconds to spare. “That’s all, then.”
Ella stepped closer and cleared her throat. “Sir?”
His gaze snapped to her. “What?”
“We brought what we could for first aid. And water.” She held up the bag to illustrate. He nodded and pointed behind him. “Set it down and get back to the upper floors.”
Carol spoke up this time. “I have CPR and basic first aid. I can help, if anyone is injured.”
The man asked for her name, and offered his, Bo, in return. There was nothing for them to do yet but Bo said they could wait.
Ella and Carol sat down behind him to get the cleanest air. Either they would be needed soon, or nothing they did would ever matter again, but all Ella cared about right now was she didn’t see Tanner anywhere. Bile rose in her throat and she tried to pretend the stinging in her eyes was entirely from the smoke.