Where There’s Smoke…

By “Bill”
Austin, Texas, USA

I opened the door to the back stairs from the kitchen of the house where I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, back around 1975. I smelled smoke. This wasn’t your ordinary somebody’s-cooking-burgers-on-the-grill kind of smoke.

Where There's SmokeAs a reporter, I’d stood across the street from enough house fires with my camera and notebook to know what I was smelling. There was a structure fire nearby — and maybe I was in it. I went down the stairs and opened the outside door. The smell got stronger, but the smoke wasn’t heavy enough to see and I couldn’t see anything near the house.

I went back upstairs and dialed the fire dispatcher. He put out a “still alarm” which included the engine company, based a couple of blocks from where I guessed the fire was.

My police scanner radio was on and I heard the police dispatcher sending car “1 and 4” from all the way downtown. This was “2 and 6’s” district and I realized that the officer wouldn’t know about the construction that had been progressing down Russell Street — there was a BIG hole in the street, maybe 20 feet deep and from curb to curb, where they had been replacing pipes.

And then I saw the blue and white police car crest the hill on Elm Street. He was moving! And going straight for the big pit. I dialed 9-1-1: Don’t talk, just listen. Tell Jimmy to tell “1 and 4” not to go down Russell Street! There’s a BIG hole in the street! “1 and 4” was now a half block away from the corner. It took him about 80 feet for the message to get from his ears to his brain and then to his brake foot. Just as he was rounding the corner, he locked ’em up. And came to a stop about 15 feet from the barricades and another couple of feet beyond that — the pit. He paused for a moment to look at his alternative fate, then backed up and went to the next cross street to go to the fire.

I took my notebook and hoofed it over to the fire, where the excitement was pretty much over. The fire was out. Somebody had lit trash on the back stairs of a wood-frame apartment building. I’d seen several of them lost due to fire and usually by the time anybody notices, they were fully involved. This time, due to an early report, not only was it knocked down right away, but there was a suspect in custody. Apparently she was settling a grudge.

So if you lived on Blossom Street, or were on the job in “1 and 4” that night, you may know part of this story. You probably never knew what great pictures I could have gotten from my window that night. It has never seemed to me like I had a choice.

Originally published as HeroicStories #66 on Oct 2, 1999
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 1.

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