I've used this experience in my writing many times since. One of the most dramatic scenes is the opening of Burned Too Hot. Check out the photos and excerpt below.
David Lund's gut clenched. No matter how long he'd been a firefighter, gasping for air in a vacuum always brought the same, visceral, thoughtless panic—then a whoosh from the SCBA filled the void. His breathing settled into a rhythm.
Vision limited by face mask and helmet, Lund turned to Kyle Blaski. "Ready?"
Still adjusting his air flow, the young firefighter nodded.
In this middle-of-the-night house fire where victims were likely inside, Lund would prefer to go in with a veteran like Dempsey. But thanks to an accident at one of the rash of small arson-set fires in recent weeks, Dempsey was limited to duties he could perform with a sprained wing.
At least what the young guy lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm, showing up to every one of the recent fire calls, usually arriving before everyone but Bix Johnson. And it didn't hurt that the kid was strong as a mule.
A second truck screamed up the street and then a third. Soon the place would be swarming with firefighters, but there was no time to wait. Not when a fire doubled in size every fifteen to thirty seconds.
The clock was ticking.
He and Blaski headed for the house, the teams covering the basement and first floor following behind. Adrenaline dumped into his bloodstream, and the little tremor that said his body knew this was life or death hummed through his body. Too relaxed and he wasn't taking the situation seriously. Too tense and his hands shook, his reactions turned sluggish, mind dull. Over the years, he'd learned to handle the stress, compartmentalizing emotions, balancing himself, striking just the right note between fear and calm.
On the other hand, Blaski seemed nervous.
"We got this, man. Trust your training."
"Damn straight." Blaski said, nodding like a bobble head.
Lund looked back in time to see a car jolt to a stop behind the security tape strung across the driveway. A woman jumped out and raced for the house, until she was intercepted by Dempsey. Light brown hair, pretty, she thrashed against the grizzled firefighter's chest, tears streaking her face.
There was someone inside all right. At least she thought so. Time to get them out.
Lund pulled open the door.
Smoke and heat swept out in a wave. Coats lined the right side of the small landing. Straight ahead, concrete stairs stretched into the basement. On the left, two steps led up to the main floor and into smoke, thick and black.
Movies and television depict structure fires with dramatic shots of flame. Although flame was there, running up the walls and spreading along the ceiling, in real life smoke was the devil a firefighter most often had to face down.
The devil that most often killed.
Lund took the two steps and dropped to the floor, ceramic tile hard under his knees. One hand tracing the wall, he moved at a crawl. Blaski fell in behind, his right hand keeping contact with Lund's boot and his left leg sweeping out into the room, feeling for what couldn't be seen.
Lund felt his way along the side of a refrigerator and a row of kitchen cabinets before reaching a corner, the hard tile under his knees suddenly replaced with pile carpet. A barely discernable glow of flame cut through the smoke at the back of the house. Lund noted the location and direction it was moving then followed around the corner to the right, his gloved fingers skimming built in bookshelves and steps leading to the second floor.
"Stairs," he called to Blaski.
Wasting no time, he started up, the kid on his heels. A child gate spanned the top of the staircase, and Lund ran his hand over its top rail until he located the latch.
Opening it, he moved through, then Blaski took position behind him, and they searched the landing. The smoke was thicker up here, leaving them to grope in the sweltering dark, even the bright lights firefighters had set up outside choked to a dim shimmer. Lund pushed a loveseat out of the way, groping behind it and underneath.
Satisfied the landing was clear, they headed down the hall to the bedrooms. With no furniture to contend with, they moved quickly through the narrow space, blind and on their hands and knees. Seconds and Lund reached the first room. "Door," he called out.
Following the wall around the jamb, they crawled inside.
"Is anyone in here?" he yelled. Holding his breath, he listened for an answer.
His respirator resuming its whoosh, he moved on, right hand tracing the wall, left sweeping the darkness. A chest of drawers, the leg of a piece of furniture, the drop gate of a crib. Lund pulled himself to his feet and swiped a hand over the mattress.
Nothing but a blanket.
In Lund's experience, frightened children often hid from the smoke and darkness in a place where they felt safe. If the little one wasn't in his bed, he was curled up somewhere else. They had to find where. Fast.
He dropped to the floor, checked under the crib, then moved on to the rest of the room. A diaper pail. A changing table. A bookshelf filled with books. Another filled with bins of big Legos and wooden blocks. He announced the closed and unbroken window to Blaski then encountered what was likely a closet.
He opened it and followed the perimeter of the tiny space. Except for a collection of stuffed animals and a jumble of plastic cars, it was empty.
Where was the kid?
Lund continued the search. Methodical. Thorough.
Stick to the wall.
Every hall. Every nook. Every closet.
Any place a frightened child might hide.
Lund crawled back down the hall, Blaski's hand still on his boot. He reached another door, bathroom this time, tiny. Sink, toilet, tub, closet, and they were back in the hall, on to the next room.
"Door." Lund turned into a bedroom. Hard wood floors. Bigger this time. He combed a walk-in closet filled with shoes and clothing, a woman's and a man's. Resuming his trek around the perimeter, he examined around, under, and on top of everything.
"I have a stuffed animal here," Blaski shouted. "Center of the room."
Lund continued forward, his hand hitting the side of a platform bed. No space to hide underneath. He rose to his knees and ran a hand over the sheets, touching pillow, touching flesh. The hair was short, and he could feel the rasp of a beard against his gloves. Under the blankets, the man's chest rose and fell in shallow breaths.
"Adult male. Unconscious." Lund said, both to Blaski and into his radio. He reached over the guy, rifling the rumpled sheets, expecting to find a little body.
Read the rest in BURNED TOO HOT, available on Amazon in ebook or paperback.