On a Sunday morning I abandoned my fears and stepped inside a burning building.
The fire at 410 S. Main Street was intended to serve as a training exercise for Manteca firefighters and Explorers, but they were kind enough to let me tag along. In full turn-outs, I headed into the dark, abandoned building.
Empty except for a few pieces of tattered furniture, the building looked like something straight out of a horror movie. The only sound I could hear was my own breathing over the dim radio. Finally, the fire started.
Before the firefighters reached the room, it was full of heat and light. The flames were licking the walls and ceiling, eager to spread. When the hose crew finally arrived, the entire top half of the room was filled with smoke. Worrying for a moment that the firemen might lose control, I was relieved when they turned on the water and extinguished the flames.
However, my relief lasted only a second. The instant the flames were gone, the room went black. Smoke and ash had filled it completely, and I could no longer see anyone or anything around me.
The only evidence that I was not alone was the occasional flash of light from the electronic sensors on nearby uniforms. Even knowing that an exit lay two inches to my right was no comfort in the blindness.
I was allowed to join firemen for four of these fires. With the heavy self-contained breathing apparatus weighing down my back, I experienced the heat and danger of fire like never before.
When the structure was finally razed in the afternoon, the mere minutes it took the flames to take down every wall of the building left me stunned. In the end, nothing remained except ash and debris.
Later I witnessed a similar scene of destruction, and one that was almost impossible to control. Stepping across pebbles of shattered glass, I took a look at the interior of what used to be Rocko’s Sports Bar. While so much destruction was visible at once, it all faded together into a miserable mass of black.
Charred strips of debris hung down from the ceilings and walls in every direction like vines. The floor was layered with destruction of every kind. The fire had spread through a shared attic and destroyed four businesses. After catching a glimpse of them afterwards, I know the impossibility of trying to rebuild them.
The fire here had become so hot that the ceilings in the entire row of buildings had dissolved, exposing the steel girders which held up the roof. At some point the heat intensified so much that these girders now drooped and sagged, threatening to cave at any moment.
In fact, the only reason they were still standing was the lucky coincidence of a support beam falling on a stable interior wall. This fire was real. This fire was dangerous. As I looked around at the people outside of the row of charred buildings, they seemed unable to keep from whispering about the fire.
They seem unable to stop asking themselves what to do. How do they move on from this?