Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
0510 1/9 - 0823 1/9: Plow Extra One
Marshall himself had discovered the fire. He had been roaming the upper floors of the plant on his ceaseless, worried vigil. In the northern stretches of the plant, the air was filled with smoke from the burning hopper cars, but in the extreme northwestern part, the air seemed warmer and smokier than elsewhere. Really worried now, he investigated further; sure enough, a section of the roof was burning.
The plant supervisor ran to the nearest in-plant fire alarm and yanked it, then ran from there to a telephone, where he called the main office. Then, still rushing, he went down the stairs to see how bad the damage was.
Had the arsonist struck again?
Once outside, Marshall could see that his fear was silly. The wind had shifted enough to have picked up a still-burning brand from the pulpwood yard and deposited it on the rooftop.
Someone in the office relayed the call to the Warsaw fire hall, and the fireman on duty there had put the call on the air. Within seconds, Linder's voice echoed through radio speakers all across the town: "Warsaw and Albany River, take up and assist Walsenberg at the northeast corner of the paper plant."
The fireman on radio duty at the fire hall in Warsaw corrected him. "It's the northwest, repeat northwest corner, Fred."
"Northwest? What the hell is it doing burning over there? Are you sure?"
Joe McGuinnis from Spearfish Lake happened to be driving the department's utility truck back from the rest train when he heard the exchange. He was trying to take the short way through the smoke cloud, perhaps not too bright a move, but he happened to be right at the northwest corner of the plant. He quickly radioed, "This is Spearfish Lake C-22. Confirm roof fire, small in extent, on the northwest, repeat northwest corner of the plant."
"Roger," Linder replied. "Warsaw and Albany River to the northwest corner of the plant. Spearfish Lake C-1, do you think you can get any hoses on it from your south yard fire pumper?"
"It's kind of far," Harry Masterfield replied from his command post on the north side of the yard, trying to visualize the situation of his rural pumper on the south side. "We can try."
"C-1, this is C-22," McGuiniss shouted into the utility truck's microphone. "Have them run a 2 1/2 out to the end and point it toward the plant. I'll be your forward observer."
A minute or so later, four Spearfish Lake firemen were pointing a 2 1/2-inch thick stick of water into the smoke cloud. As soon as it crashed to the ground not far from the accountant, he reported, "Short and left."
A few seconds later the hose stream moved to the right. "Still short, bearing good," he reported to the firemen directing the hose stream, but who couldn't see through the smoke and the storm where they were pointing the hose.
"We're at maximum elevation," Rod Turpin reported over his portable radio from the head of the hose.
"Raise it anyway," the accountant suggested. "Maybe the wind will carry it farther."
Somewhat more raggedly, the stream of water began to hit the side of the building.
"Better," McGuinnis reported. "Try some more."
The stream became more ragged still, but moved no closer to the fire. "No good," McGuinnis reportred. "We're still about thirty yards short."
"This is C-1. Better knock it off," Masterfield ordered. "A Warsaw truck just left here. They ought to be over to your location in a minute or so. We'd better get that hose line back over to the firebreak."
Fred Linder roared up on his snowmobile as one of the two Warsaw pumpers arrived from the other direction, and for the first time he had a good look at the fire. It was still small; a single hole had been burned in the roof. But Linder knew well enough that in a plant as old and dry as the paper plant, looks could be deceiving. The fire could have gotten well into the structure of the plant in the time it had taken to discover the fire and get the first trucks to it. Still, the fire was on the downwind side of the plant, so it wouldn't be carried by the wind. The firemen still had a chance to save the building, and, for the Warsaw firemen, their jobs as well.
The standard procedure for fighting a fire in a building like this is simple: get on top of it and hit it hard. There wasn't much any of the departments could do about getting on top of it, since none of them had a snorkel truck with a cherry-picker lift to get a hose line up in the air, but when Linder saw the Northern Electrical Co-op truck head toward the plant, he had an idea. As soon as power to the plant had been cut off, he commandeered the company's cherry-picker truck, took two firemen and a 2 1/2 inch hose line and put them in the truck's bucket. It took a few minutes, but they were on top of the fire.
Soon, nine 2 1/2 inch hoses were playing on the fire. "Don't screw around with the little stuff," Linder told his men, and now they were hitting it hard. He could afford to feel a little bit more relieved. The fire hadn't gotten away from them.
Linder's attention was diverted by Cliff Sprague, calling from the other side of the plant: "What's happening to all our water?"
Over his portable radio, Linder replied, "What's happening, Cliff?"
"We're not getting water! We're pumping it out faster than we're getting it. Our tanks are dropping fast."
Linder knew instantly what the problem was. "We're all on the same main," he told Sprague.
Up to this point, there had never been more than four 4-inch feeder hoses, plus smaller lines, working off of the single twelve-inch water main that serviced hydrants on both sides of the plant. Now there were seven: two each from Warsaw, Walsenberg, and Albany River, and one from Spearfish Lake. All were trying to pull off of the same main. Walsenberg, at the end of the line, had little left to pump.
"Albany River, shut down your pumpers," Linder ordered, giving himself time to think. The major fire mains in town went down the east-west streets. The northside yard fire pumper was pulling off the Second Street Main. Everybody else was on the Third Street main, which ran past the end of the street to the far end of the plant.
"That's better," Sprague reported from the far end of the plant. It may have been better for Walsenberg, but now Albany River had no water. Support them with tankers? That would be better, but not good enough. Linder wanted the fire hit as hard as it could be hit.
"Spearfish Lake," he ordered, "Shut down your southside pumper from the hydrant. Run it off tankers. Tankers can fill at the Second Street hydrants. Albany River, you can restart one pumper."
That was better, but Albany River still had a quiet truck, and the Second Street fire main still had water. Linder mentally juggled assignments for a moment and went on into the radio. "We're going to have to set up a support line from the Second Street main. Warsaw, Albany River and Spearfish Lake, use the booster pumps on your grass trucks. Run it from the Second and Winter Street hydrant. Albany River tankers, support your pumper. That support line is only going to be two and a half inch, so you'll have to keep it full."
There had to be booster pumps every few hundred feet to keep the pressure up at the engines; pumpers use a LOT of water at high pressure. What else could be done?
Linder thought for a moment, then spoke into the radio again. "Somebody over at the train, find Jim Horton and have him get over to the pump house and see if there's any way he can pump up the line pressure. Walsenberg, your grass truck has a four-inch booster, doesn't it?"
"There's a hydrant down on Railroad Street, by the corner of Shed 4. Is your southside pumper close enough to it for a booster line with your grass truck?
"Won't reach," Sprague reported.
"Dig it out and lay the hose out in reserve," Linder ordered. "If we need it, we can send you a tanker with a booster pump."
"Will do," came the word from the Walsenberg chief.
Linder turned to Fred Rumsey, the proud father who had returned from Spearfish Lake on the last train. "Get a couple more inch and a halfs and some people and get up inside the plant. Get them on the fire. You get back out here. I need to know how things are going in three."
"It's getting pretty thick in there," Rumsey replied. "Mr. Marshall was just out here. He wanted me to tell you that all the patrols are out of the plant and he's counted noses. The smoke was getting to be too much for the gas masks."
Plow Extra One was just climbing up out of the Spearfish River valley onto the Hoselton flats. The Rock was running through the cloud of snow that the plow was putting up, and in the darkness, Bud could hardly see a thing. He couldn't help but wonder how Ed was getting along up in the plow's cupola. Easy enough to find out; he called him on the VHF.
"I can't see a bloody thing up here," Sloat replied. "I don't know how John did."
"I guess he more felt things than saw them."
Sloat yawned. "Wonder how things are going in Warsaw?"
"Probably about the same as always," Bud replied. "Fred Linder seemed to be holding the line the last two times we were up there."
As Linder had suspected, the fire in the paper plant had spread from the roof to inside the plant, in spite of the best efforts of two departments. For the moment, they seemed to be holding it. The yard fire seemed to be no worse than ever, although the hectic tanker movements to the rural pumper on the south side of the yard fire didn't show this. Over on the west side of the plant, though, things were getting worse. Sprague's voice on the radio gave Fred Linder the first notice: "I think the shed roof is starting to go."
"I'd better come over and have a look," Linder told the smoke-blackened Fred Rumsey. "Tell what's-his-name from Albany River to keep an eye on the store. I'll be back in a few minutes."
But then, Linder had second thoughts, and decided to talk to the Albany River chief for himself. By the time he got to the east side of the paper plant the shed roof had already gone. Walsenberg was pouring water onto the roaring flames like mad. "You should have been here," Sprague told him. "When that roof went, it went all at once. We had a regular volcano here for a minute."
Linder surveyed the scene. Virtually all of the Walsenberg hose lines were playing onto the shed fire. "Jesus, Cliff," Linder warned, "Don't forget to protect the exposure you've got on the main plant."
"We get this fire knocked down, we'll have it protected permanently," the Walsenberg man replied.
That wasn't Linder's idea of covering the exposure; with all the sparks in the air, a wet plant wall would have much less chance for a vagrant spark to take hold. With all the ice that had collected on the side of the plant over the last few hours, the wall should be almost fireproof, but still, "How's about throwing a couple of lines onto the east side of that place?"
"You said you were going to send Albany River to do that," Sprague snapped.
"That was before we had a fire in the other end of the plant," Linder replied, trying to keep things calm as he turned to study the east side of the plant.
Was that a wisp of smoke he saw on the shingles?
"It's burning now," he yelled at Sprague. "Get your big stuff on that right now, and don't give me any shit. I'll get Albany River over here."
Sprague wanted to snap out an angry reply, but he reconsidered. He could see that Linder was really pissed. He began to order his men to face the rear of the line they had been holding.
Linder grabbed his portable radio. "Albany River, take up again," he ordered. "We've got fire on the windward side, now. I want one pumper on the south side of Walsenberg between the plant and the shed, hooked into that booster line from the Walsenberg grass truck. The other pumper, I want on the north side of the plant near the east end. That one can use the Third Street main. Grass trucks, except Walsenberg, break up the support line and support Warsaw on the northwest corner. Tankers, support the grass trucks and the south Spearfish Lake pumper. Everybody hurry! Walsenberg's shorthanded!"
It took Albany River longer than Linder would have hoped to get set up on the northeast corner of the plant. It was the department's second move in a little less than an hour, and things were getting confused. With hose lines spread all over and men scattered here and there, it wasn't surprising. In the meantime, about all that the Walsenberg crew under their surly chief could do was to hit the outside of the building with 2 1/2 inch hoses and try to penetrate the building with smaller lines.
A radio call from Linder eased the manpower situation somewhat; he had Masterfield send the truckless Hoselton department and a dozen of his own men to reinforce the thinned-out Walsenberg manpower, and, since he couldn't trust Sprague any longer, told Hoselton's Wally Borck over the radio, so everyone could hear, that he was in charge on the east side.
It wasn't enough. At a time when seconds counted, it understandably took minutes to respond to Linder's desperate call and start putting water on the now-developed fire, but once they were set up, Albany River fought stubbornly.
At the other side of the plant, Warsaw and the grass trucks fought alone. Before Albany River had departed, they had been gaining on the fire. Perhaps another half an hour or so might have made the difference. They now fought to hold the line, to hope that the damage to the west side of the plant wouldn't be too great if the other departments could do any good on the east side.
There was not a person in town that did not know what that plant meant to Warsaw, and now even the cooks on the now-empty rest train left their stoves to watch what was clearly the town's life and death struggle. Over on the north side of the yard fire, Harry Masterfield felt helpless. He was fully engaged with the yard fire, but maybe he had a little reserve. He told Linder on the radio, "I can maybe break free a couple tankers for you, Fred, and a few more hands."
"I don't need the tankers just now," Linder replied. "Hands would be welcome. Send all you can spare."
Masterfield had already spared the Hoselton department and a half-dozen hands of his own, but now he sent ten more firemen to back up Warsaw. He now had just one half-strength department to do the work three had been doing an hour earlier.
Conditions were wild down in the lot between the main plant and the warehouse. It was filled with shouting men, roaring pumpers and shrieking hoses. The air was filled with an ice fog that settled on everything and instantly hardened. Ice was all over everywhere, and it was almost impossible to see anything in the whiteout of water fog and darkness and flying snow and the still-pungent smoke from the burning fertilizer cars.
The last may have well been the worst. The Albany River crews were now in the thick of the fertilizer smoke, near the source, where it was worst. They were already using their reserve supplies of air. Cliff Sprague had deadlined the compressor on his grass truck a couple of hours before, and whatever headway the straining air compressors in the Warsaw fire hall had made was almost instantly depeleted. Despite the icing and the difficulty of working in the army gas masks, Linder had to dictate that only they be used outside the plant, to husband the limited supply of compressed air for inside the plant.
Joe McGuinnis was working a Walsenberg one and a half inch line inside the plant behind Rod Turpin, when the logger suddenly staggered and fell to the floor. The accountant gained control of the lashing hose and yelled, "Man down!."
A couple of Albany River firemen dragged Turpin's inert form out of the building and called for an ambulance. The ambulance took Turpin out of the smoke cloud and stopped to work on him.
Linder rode up on his snowmobile and yelled, "Did he have an air pack on?"
"Yeah, this one here," one of the ambulance attendants replied, pointing to the air bottle and mask laying on the floor of the ambulance. On it, Linder could read WALSENBERG V F D. Without saying a word, he stormed off to see Sprague.
"I thought you valved off all those polluted air packs!"
"Goddamn it, we did," the Walsenberg chief yelled back.
"Well, one of those valved-off tanks just got a Spearfish Lake guy!" Linder tuned on his heel and left. Mostly, he wanted to punch out the Walsenberg chief, but that could wait for later. Right now, he needed his equipment and people too bad.
Assuming that they didn't kill someone.
Even in his four-wheel drive pickup, it was a tough slog for Jim Horton to make it over to the town pumping station, next to the fire station and the water tower. Jim suspected that this was a pointless errand, anyway.
Warsaw had three main pumps in the pumping station. Two were fairly new -- they had only been installed ten years or so ago -- and normally, only one was in use at a time. If the level of the water tower dropped too low, an automatic switch kicked the second one in.
The third pump had about one and a half times the capacity of one of the other ones, but it was maybe 70 years old. For many years, it had been the town's only pump, but now it had been retired to standby duty, used only in case of maintenance of one of the other two pumps. Horton had been over to the pumping station to switch on the old pump shortly after Walsenberg's arrival, when he suspected that the two main pumps wouldn't be able to keep up with six pumpers.
With the third pump on line, he knew that there wasn't much else that could be done to increase the water pressure. Perhaps a valve might be opened a bit farther, but that wouldn't count for much. Still, as hard as the three pumps were working, it wouldn't hurt to check on them.
He got out of his truck and went over to check the standby generator. It had been powered up hours before, and would automatically kick in to power the pumps and the fire house should the power kick out in the storm. The generator was idling gently, and it's tank was still nearly full.
It seemed warm inside the pumping station, after having been out in the wind, but with three pumps and their electric motors going hard, it wasn't very quiet. Horton checked the various valves, and could see that they were wide open -- there was nothing to be accomplished there.
He turned to check the pumps and their motors, although there wasn't much to check. The two newer pumps and motors seemed to be running normally, and the older one was humming along, somewhat more loudly -- but that was normal too. Still, Horton inspected it somewhat more carefully than the other two, considering its age.
Plastered with fertilizer smoke for a day, Horton wasn't sure what he was smelling, but something didn't smell right. Something seemed to be running hot. He began to check more carefully, then almost burned his hand on one bearing cap of the motor.
While trying to cool off, Linder decided that he'd better check on the injured man at the impromptu ambulance-hospital that had sprung up near the standby train. The Spearfish Lake man was still alive, and in no worse shape than any of the men that had been felled by the foul bottled air earlier. "How's the oxygen holding out?" he asked the doctor.
"We've got enough for a while," the doctor told him, "But I sure hope the train gets in soon. I want to get these guys out of here before they use up all that we've got."
"Don't forget to be sure that they've got enough to make it to Spearfish Lake," Linder told him. "I know that they've got some in the caboose, but I don't know how much. Make sure that you have a three hour supply for each man. More, if possible."
"I hadn't thought about that," the doctor admitted. "If we have to provide the whole supply, that'll just about clean us out. Can you try and get us some more?"
"I'll see what I can do," Linder said, heading back into the snowstorm. As he got onto his snowmobile again, he noticed a familiar looking railroad car hooked to the front of the Milwaukee. He looked again, and smiled; at least something was going right. That was a hopper car, and it had to have been one that Kuralt and the crew from the fertilizer plant were trying to fill. Well, it must be full, now.
That was something. He hoped the other one was about full, too.
The VHF crackled, "Bud, do you smell something funny?"
Bud wasn't prepared to say. The Rock had smelled funny since the morning before, when he had stuck the plow and the front end of the Geep into the hopper car fire, but Ed might not be used to the pungent odor. Bud stuck his head out of the window, and wanted to yank it back in; the speed of the wind and speed of the engine into it almost made his ears want to drop off. Sloat was right; something did smell funny outside, and if Sloat did, it couldn't be coming from the engine behind him.
Bud looked again as they came to the Hoselton bridge. Here the railroad pointed straight at Warsaw, and the wind was coming straight down the tracks. Once across the bridge, Bud brought the engine to an idle and let the train roll to a stop. Telling Sloat that he'd be back in a minute, Bud stepped down from the engine and went to the caboose directly behind, where a few Lynchburg and Blair firefighters were telling tall stories or taking naps. "One of you guys got a radio to your units?" the engineer asked.
"Sure," one of the firemen responded. "What's up?"