Night turn, depending on how busy you were, could go quickly or seem endless. It also depended on who you were rostered with. Some liked to talk about work, family or current affairs; others, for reasons of their own, kept pretty much to themselves. George Garfield, however, liked to sing. Whether he was any good or not was debatable, June Ackland finally decided. He was belting out some country and western number that June didn't know. In the confines of the panda she was what you might call a captive audience, and was beginning to rue the fact that she had been lumbered with him.
She was relieved when Steve Loxton radioed them to attend an unspecified disturbance at the 24hr Cabbie's Cafe in the high street: it effectively shut George up.
En route, just as George turned into Canal Road, two elderly people in dressing gowns ran into the glare of the headlights to flag down the car. George quickly pulled to the curb and both PCs got out to investigate. The smell of smoke was clear in the night air and George and June put two and two together but it took precious seconds to confirm their suspicions. The couple were almost hysterical and needed to be calmed before they could get the story.
Mr. and Mrs. Howell were neighbors of widowed 86 year old Agnes Best and were frightened for her. Smoke was coming from her house, which they indicated, and she was still inside. They'd knocked furiously but without success. George leaned into the panda to pick up the flashlight and then ran to the house to see what he could do.
June radioed in.
"Sierra Oscar from Sierra Oscar Eight Six. Receiving, over?"
"Go ahead, June," Steve Loxton replied after a moment.
"Yeah, Steve, we've been sidetracked from your previous call. We have a house fire at number twenty three, two, three, Canal Road. One person trapped. She's an OAP. Require fire brigade and ambulance. Over."
"Right, June. Stand by."
Loxton passed the details on to Sgt. Cryer, then called the emergency services. Cryer told Reg Hollis, the second operator, to dispatch Barry Stringer, on foot patrol, to the cafe disturbance as he was the next available, then to send the remaining panda with Norika and Cathy aboard to assist George and June with initial crowd control. Sgt Cryer then dialed Insp Monroe's extension to put him into the picture.
On the other side of the borough, the appliance room clock read 0130 when the bells went down at the Sun Hill fire station. Three and a half minutes later their Dennis pumper roared out.
Back at the scene, the house had now become well alight along part of the left side. George could see flames dancing behind the front room windows, but no sign of anyone moving among them. He called June over.
"It's getting worse," he said, an edge to his voice.
"Brigade and ambulances are on their way," June informed him.
"She might be dead before they get here, yeah'?"
"Then we'd better do something about it."
Suddenly they heard a cry from Mrs. Howell, and her husband called to them.
"My wife! Please, help!"
Overcome by the ordeal Mrs. Howell had collapsed. They ran to assist. June turned to her companion.
"I'll look after her. See what you can do for Agnes."
George quickly asked Mr. Howell where he thought Agnes might be, the bedroom perhaps? Mr. Howell shook his head. "Downstairs," he said. "She can't climb the stairs the way she did and had a bedroom made up where the sitting room used to be."
Armed with that information, George went back to the house. He put on his gloves, smashed the front door glass with the butt end of his flashlight and put his hand through to spring the catch, then opened the door. Braving the dense smoke he went in.
June had assisted Mr. Howell to take his wife to the panda where she could sit in some comfort. By now the street was filling with people and June knew she had to take charge here and leave George to it. She found the owners of the vehicles parked in front of the house and ordered them to move them out of the way.
Inside the house, the beam of George's powerful flashlight cut into the billowing murk. He was in a long hall with a flight of stairs leading up to his right. Beside the stairs was a door, which he opened carefully. The heat and pent up smoke hit him in a rush. Threads of bright red flame lit the room, and he quickly slammed the door shut again. Already his eyes were wet and stinging, his mouth dry and his throat sore. He started to cough as his lungs began to fill with smoke.
"Agnes!" he yelled as best he could and moved forward. "Where are you, love?" He covered his mouth and nose with his free hand.
The door to a second, smaller, room on the left was partially open. He checked it. No one, and no fire here, so he shut the door tightly. Swinging the flashlight back down the hall, he saw the entrance to yet another room towards the rear of the house, and was just moving to investigate when a loud bang and a whoosh behind caused him to turn in alarm. The hall had burst into flame; an orange, white and red wave rolled unerringly towards him. He sought immediate refuge in the room ahead. It was the kitchen he discovered, on the floor was the old woman he had been looking for. She appeared to be unconscious. He shut the door for protection against the threatening flames and to buy time. George had expected a frail, lightly built, small woman, but what he found was totally the opposite. Agnes Best was a big woman, indeed. The planned rescue he had drawn up in his mind, of picking her up and whisking her to safety, completely vanished. He had the devil's own time trying to move her, let alone lift her.
Outside the house, the cars, under June's direction, had all been moved by the time the panda with Cathy and Norika arrived. June briefed the new arrivals, and although George had been gone a long time, both women had the sense not to follow him into the house. They assisted June in keeping the crowd well back.
The Brigade pumper arrived five minutes later, and pulled up directly in front of the house adding its red flashing ring of light to the police car's blue already punctuating the night. June recognised Sub Officer Brian Godfrey from the Blue Watch, as he jumped from the cab to the footpath and quickly warned him about George and the old woman as his men swung into action. The sudden, loud sound of breaking glass made them duck and turn to see a whip of flame flare from a broken window on the upper floor.
Fireman Alan Palmer took the stand pipe, key and gear to the nearby hydrant while Phil Anderson and Vic Made manhandled hoses from the pumper's lockers.
Anderson attached one end of the hose to the couplings on the pump, then stood by the valves as Wade laid out the hose from the appliance. Leading Fireman Jim Evans was kitted out in a BA set. Once he'd secured his mask and helmet he quickly assisted Godfrey into his gear.
Inside the house, George was unaware of all this activity. He had his own troubles. Battling a nuisance cough and watering eyes, he took off his gloves and knelt to examine the woman more closely. The old girl must have fallen and was unconscious. He quickly cleared her airway, removed her dentures and tucked them into a pocket of her dressing gown, then placed her in the coma position. In the glow of the flashlight which he had placed on the tiny kitchen table, he could see the room rapidly filling with smoke. The window was closed and shuttered. A lot of old people were either too lax about security or paranoid about it. Agnes was one of the latter ones. He climbed onto the sink to try the window, but something was holding it firmly shut and no amount of heaving could get it to open. His failing strength didn't help. He got down, opened a drawer, found a tablecloth and wet it thoroughly, then covered Agnes with it to help her breathe through the smoke. The door was now hot to the touch and tongues of flame licked out from under it. He jammed wet tea towels into the crack under the door, but he knew they were well and truly trapped.
Godfrey and his team were at the front door. A length of hose was brought up. The hall was alive with flame. Everything was burning; wallpaper flared, died, peeled off. The hall runner, blackened and smoldering, was now dotted with bright embers. The plasterboard ceiling billowed black smoke which rolled like waves towards the front door. The stairs and banisters were ablaze and were covered in debris. All the wall hangings were completely burnt; treasures lost. The heat was intense. Ash began to fall like snow as the ceiling broke up.
Palmer and Wade knelt and supported the heavy control branch between them, then Palmer opened the valve wide and a powerful jet of water burst forth. Anderson controlled the pressure from the appliance. Powered by a diesel engine, the pump was capable of throwing out a thousand gallons per minute, and the firemen leaned into the hose to prevent being thrown back by the force of water. They aimed for the ceiling first, then the walls, drawing larger and larger circles. As the water hit the plaster walls, pieces began to fly off and glass from an overhead lamp shattered. Shards of paint literally peeled from the ceiling, and hot steaming back-spray splashed over them. They kept on. Once the hall had been dampened sufficiently, Palmer and Wade turned their attention to the front room while Godfrey and Evans made their way past them and checked all the other rooms for signs of life. They broke into the kitchen.
George had finally collapsed from smoke inhalation, but was conscious. He waved the firemen away towards Agnes, urging them to rescue her first. Godfrey tossed aside the tablecloth, checked her, and it took the mens' combined strength to lift her. They carried her unceremoniously from the kitchen. George struggled to his feet to get himself out, and guarding his hands against the hot surfaces, he elbowed his way into the burnt out remains of the hall. The steam hit him first, followed by the foul smell, but he could just see the night glow filtering in from the open front door, and the firemen taking Agnes out. He could also see two other firemen moving cautiously up the stairs with a hose.
He fell, suddenly, his legs unable to support him and he tried to land on a protected part of his body. He succeeded in falling against the wall with shoulder and hip and there he thought he might stay. Spent, he simply couldn't go on. The next thing, four powerful arms picked him up from the floor like a rag doll, and carried him out into the crisp night air. It was the sweetest sensation he had ever felt. He knew June was beside him, talking to him, but he couldn't make out what she was saying. He saw the ambulances next. One was pulling away, lights flashing and klaxon blaring; the other; doors wide open and beckoning, was coming closer and closer. An oxygen mask was thrust onto his face and he found himself lying on the stretcher bed.
Once they had completed their rescues, Godfrey and Evans went to assist their colleagues extinguish the fire. The house, however, had been extensively damaged.
As the crew began the work of making up, Godfrey took June aside to have a quiet chat.
"You want to have a word with the oppo of yours, June. He was lucky. Worked out this time, but it could have been both of them. Best left to the Brigade, yes?"
She nodded, but didn't tell him that she would have probably gone in with George if events hadn't diverted her. She turned to find him. George was sitting on the step of the ambulance savoring a cooling drink. Face blackened, he nevertheless looked well pleased with himself, and for once she couldn't blame him. Despite the chilly rain now falling, he seemed to have recovered after receiving the oxygen.
"Wouldn't you know it?" he said with a grin, "it starts to rain only after they put the fire out." He ran a hand through his dripping hair and added: "I never thought it would feel so good to get wet."
"I know what you mean."
George blew his nose, turned away to spit, then looked at her and grinned.
"Just got the word," he said, "Agnes is going to be all right."
June was relieved, the effort had been worthwhile.
"You look terrible," she told him with a smile, "and you smell like an ashtray."
He laughed. "Thanks very much, I'm sure." He stood up and tried to brush himself down. It didn't do any good. "Best get back to the station, yeah. Get cleaned up."
June turned to see that Norika and Cathy had things well in hand and that she could leave them to it. She turned back to George.
"I'll drive," she told him. He really did smell like he had been charcoaled and then some. George didn't protest.
As June pointed the panda's nose towards Sun Hill, George couldn't help but burst into song again. This time she didn't mind and for once the tune was one she knew: it was one she liked herself; written by James Taylor, "Fire and Rain."