First, a couple of disclaimers:
1. This actually happened
2. It did not happen to me, but a friend/coworker
I think every firefighter feels pretty much the same; We don't want bad things to happen, but since they are going to happen anyway, we want to be there. We don't want people to be trapped and possibly hurt. But if they are, we want to save them. Truth be told, there is a little bit of Walter Mitty in all of us. We want to be the one that makes the rescue, we want to be heroes. It's not that we want to walk around and have citizens look at us as heroes, that's not what we want. Down deep, we want to believe our co-workers think that of us. We want to be able to think that of ourselves.
It's a weekday, mid morning. Dispatch tones out Engine 5 for a "smoke investigation". Apparently someone had seen and or smelled smoke in the neighborhood and called it in. This only requires a single engine to check it out. Just seconds after dispatching Engine 5, dispatch has received numerous other calls for a house fire on the same street. As Engine 5 checks en route, she dispatches a second engine, 2 trucks, an MICU, and a Deputy Chief. She tells Engine 5 that she has had several calls- a sure sign that something is happening.
As Engine 5 arrives on scene, they find a wood framed house, with smoke coming from the back and the attic. The crew notices a car in the driveway, and children's toys in the yard. This quick glance tells the crew that there may be someone here at this time of day, and there is a good chance small children live here.
As the engineer sets the pump, and the fireman and officer pull and straighten out the hose to be ready to go inside, a neighbor is yelling that she hasn't seen "the old lady" that lives there. She thinks she is still inside. By this time they have been on scene less than 2 minutes, but the MICU has arrived and the first Truck is coming down the street. The officer orders the firefighters on the MICU to "bunk out" or get their firefighting suits on (which they are already doing) and do a search while the engine crew takes a hose line inside to find and stop the fire.
The engine crew enters with the hose line. Right behind them is the MICU (ambulance) crew. They would say later that they had seen the car and the toys, but had not heard that "the old lady" may be inside. As they enter, they start a left hand search-that is keeping their left hand on a wall at all times so they continue to go the same way.
What most people don't realize is that real fires are not at all like TV fires. You can't see your hand in front of your face. Your face piece allows you to breath the air from your SCBA, but it doesn't help you see. It's hot inside the house, even through the protective clothing they wear. It's dark, they search by feel. They can hear the fire burning, cracking and popping. They can hear the crew spraying water.
And then, one of them hears a new sound. They have made it into the hallway, heading towards the bedrooms. It sounds like a moan. He stops. He yells "Hello! any body in here?"
"..ow....." he hears.
His said later that his mind and body went into overdrive. "Where are you?" he yells again and again as he enters a bedroom. Yelling at the top of his lungs, his voice comes out distorted. With the fire and smoke and other sounds, the sounds he hears are distorted too.
"Tell me where you are!"
He had decided a child was inside. He starts feeling under the bed, on the bed. He finds a closet door and as he opens it he hears "..ooowwww"
Now on the verge of both panic and exaltation, he reaches into the closet, feeling around and tossing out clothes. He hears and feels movement. He gently reaches in to get the child, knowing that he has done it. Already savoring the feeling of saving a child's life. He knows he has done something special, something that he will remember always. He reaches in and gently pulls out a scared cat.
Cat. Feline. Animal.
Not the child he thought, but never the less he removes the cat to fresh air. Outside, they give the cat some oxygen and watch him perk up. As they came out of the house, a truck crew had finished searching the house and called an "all clear".
My friend experienced mixed emotions. He was both happy that no one was hurt, and sorry that a child hadn't been trapped. He was glad he helped the cat, but sorry that it was only a cat. He had expected to save a child. He worked hard to save a child. The fact that it was "only a cat" was a disappointment.
There was no one inside the house. "The old lady" had been a 54 year old woman who had walked out with food cooking on the stove. The toys belonged to her grand kids who came to visit occasionally.
My friend quickly saw the humor in the situation. I don't think we made too much fun. Maybe a few "meows" as he walked by.
Oddly enough, the "Old Lady" kept thanking him for saving "her baby".
I guess it's all in how you look at it.