[Of all the elements a circus routinely flirts with and teases, perhaps fire is the most dangerous. Because of nonsense like this, fire was a part of our everyday routine. But on one December morning in Houston, it claimed one of our treasured vehicles, many props and several costumes. Nick Weber, daily, 1971-93.]
At four-ten in the morning, even the bars have been locked for over an hour-and-a-half; there is no traffic at all save for the idle scavenger or homeless person looking for a step, a ledge, or the underside of a bridge. So why sirens? Who needs to know there’s an emergency mission? So I rolled over. Until the siren shut off very near my building. Then I heard another siren in the distance and decided it was I who needed to hear this shrill, nearly jeering, too early fanfare.
Out of bed and in my living room I could smell the smoke of overheated aged wood and building material. And the first hook and ladder was directly in front of the apartment building next door. In the dark, fog was almost indistinguishable from smoke but then the steady flow of whitish plumes from the western roof hatch helped me locate the trouble. I was seven floors above the endangered building. I might have known where the fire was concentrated before the firemen. But the sounds of serious axes on the building’s south side signalled that these guys were underneath the culprit, perhaps even in the middle of it. More axe chopping, violent but not quite desperate. Sirens swarmed from every direction screeching their sad panic. Traffic was blocked by about fifteen emergency vehicles, including the monstrous T-Rex which eventually extended its nosey ladder above the building’s rooftop. Hoses appeared and the lonesome fire hydrant across our intersection became a star.
Still no one on the roof. Smoke was coming from all the air vents on the rooftop now. Did the top of the T-Rex have a video camera on it? Certainly no one had climbed those steps to inspect what I could see so plainly.
Then the first flicker. Against the darkness and the bare setting of the roof, the tiny flame betrayed that the roof struts had become just too hot. Fireproof foam insulation or not, this fire needed to expand. Still no men on the rooftop. Was axing below chasing the flame to the roof? What do I know?
Finally one fireman, actually carrying a hallway fire extinguisher, emerged through the roof hatch and doused the flame which was now about six feet in diameter. Then he carefully sounded the surface near the flame’s hole so see if it could support him. Away with the toy fire extinguisher and into serious axing of the material around the flame. More flame. More firemen. More axing. And finally a hose, up through the hatch.
A bizarre vigil ensued. A dozen bottles of cold water were passed around as the men took turns training the hose then waited to verify their success. Eerily they collected their axes, collapsed their ladders, rolled hoses and drifted away—silently—as had the smoke.
Every event these guys encounter is a new event. No inner city building or location or access grid is the same. I know nothing about the science of firefighting; I do know that what I watched had the freshness of a grand piece of art.
And like all great artists these over-suited warriors left behind a miracle. Sure they saved the majority of the building and who knows how much of the neighborhood. But there were about forty alarmed and sleepy young people standing out on our street at dawn, safe and unhurt. That had been the first order of business for the firemen while I was fretting about the roof.