Sandy heard ringing. It was dark outside. Half-emerging from deep sleep, he stretched his right arm and slammed it down on the alarm clock. The ringing continued. Damn. Must be the telephone, he thought. He stretched again and found the receiver on the second try.
He emitted a grumble bearing some resemblance to “hello.”
“Sandy, this is Katherine.”
“Hi. What time is it?”
“Doesn’t matter. There’s a big house fire at 603 Coolidge. That’s a few blocks from you.”
“Um…yeah, it is.”
There was a moment of silence.
“So…uh…what do you want?” asked Sandy.
“I want you to get your sleepy ass out of bed and cover it. Now!”
Oh. That Katherine. His mind slipped into gear.
“Right! I’m on it! What was the address again?”
“603 Coolidge. Are you awake?”
“Totally. I’ll be there in three minutes.”
“Don’t forget your notebook, Ace.” The phone clicked.
This is the life I dreamed about? Sandy stumbled to the bathroom, splashed his face with cold water, and dared a glance into the mirror. Eyes not so terribly bloodshot, considering he only had four hours sleep. He combed down the worst of his bed hair, grabbed his notebook and two pens, slipped into his heavy overcoat and headed into the frigid November morning air. The acrid odor of burning wood was unmistakable. In the sky he could see smoke and flames a quarter mile away. He thought about walking, briefly, but he recalled the urgency in Katherine’s voice. Also it was freezing. He stepped into Ol’ Rustbucket – it turned over on the second try – and he drove to the scene.
Fire engines obstructed Coolidge. He parked a half block away and hustled over. A half dozen people in bathrobes had gathered across the street from the blaze. He spotted a fireman with an official looking captain’s cap and approached him. “Sandy Martin from The Bird,” he said. “Any injuries?”
“Was anyone in the house?”
“One fellow was on the third floor. We rescued him with the ladder.”
“Wow. Is he still here?”
The captain tilted his head slightly to the left. “The dark, skinny Indian-looking fellow over there.”
“And for the record,” the captain added, “he was dark before the fire.”
“Thanks, I’ll quote you on that,” said Sandy. Stupid racist prick, he muttered under his breath.
The blaze was still burning but the fire hoses were pumping hard and keeping it from spreading. The brick exterior still stood, but the roof had collapsed, and Sandy thought the damage looked pretty serious, even in the dark. Sandy walked over to the young man the fire captain had pointed out. “Do you live in this house?” Sandy asked. He nodded.
“I’m Sandy Martin, a reporter for The Bird. “Were you in the house when the fire started?”
“Yes, I was sleeping.”
Sandy took down his name, Omar Hassani. “What woke you up?” Sandy asked.
“That man,” he said, pointing to a short, rotund, bald man in a uniform. “Mr. George. He was yelling ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ He saved my life.”
“Is he a fireman?”
“He is a city bus driver.”
Sandy got Omar to confirm details of his rescue by the fire crew. “And no one else was in the house?”
Omar shook his head. “Everybody is a student. The others were home for this holiday of Thanksgiving. I could not go home.”
“Where is home?”
“I see. That’s a little far to go for a long weekend.”
Sandy excused himself and found the bus driver. George Thornton was happy to tell his story. He had been driving an empty city bus down Coolidge at about 5:45 a.m. when he noticed flames licking up the right side of the house on the north side of the street. Thornton braked the bus and ran toward the blaze. The front door was locked. Thornton backed up a few feet and began shouting in hopes of awakening anyone inside. On the left side, third floor – the side away from the blaze – Omar popped his head out. “Get out now!” Thornton shouted. But a moment later Omar was back, reporting the stairs were burning. They were weighing whether a jump would be worth the risk when the Fire Department arrived. The crew had a ladder up right away, and firemen guided a shaky but grateful Omar to the ground.
“Omar credits you for saving his life,” Sandy said.
“I’m no hero,” said Thornton. “I just did what anyone would do in that situation.”
“You could have kept driving,” Sandy said.
“No. I couldn’t have done that. And I’m glad I didn’t.”
“Believe me, so is Omar,” Sandy said.
Sandy made one more check-in with the fire captain to be sure he could get the official report, and he was just about to wrap up when he noticed a familiar face almost covered by a hooded gray parka, trying to sip hot coffee. “Martha!” he said. “Hi. I didn’t know you were a morning person.”
“Ha ha. I could say the same for you,” she said. She grinned, but only for a second before her face turned serious. “Isn’t this terrible?” she said.
“It’s bad,” Sandy agreed. “It’s lucky most of the residents were home for the holiday.”
“That’s true,” said Martha, “but they’re in for a rude shock when they come back. Where are they going to live?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Sandy.
“That’s okay, I did,” she said. “The Crisis Center volunteers are trying to call them all at home, so that it’s not a total surprise. And we’re scrambling to find temporary places for them to crash when they come back to school.”
“How many people are we talking about?”
“We’re not sure. We haven’t been able to figure out who the landlord is. They should have names and home phone numbers for everyone.”
“Maybe I can help you there. I’m going back to the office. As soon as I can confirm the owner, I’ll give you a call.”
“That would be great. I’ll be at the Center,” she said. “Call me there.”
It was a perfect news story for The Bird. The city daily would carry only a short story with the basic facts – maybe not even that, since no one died. That gave the weekly Bird plenty of room to deliver what it did best: The news behind the news – the stories of real people and the impact on their lives. Over the weekend Sandy crafted an account that centered on the personal heroism of bus driver George Thornton, the dramatic rescue of Omar Hassani, and the alert, compassionate work of the Crisis Center Hotline in helping the displaced students. He was rather pleased with the finished product. He thought it was one of his better pieces – a keeper for his portfolio of clippings.