And the electricity flashing along the wire from the headquarters up-town entered the silent truck house ruled by Chief Trask, and with one stroke of the gong transformed it into a scene of activity. The men who were on watch on the ground floor, sprang from their seats by the stove, and the horses, released by the electric current, bounded to their places, three in front of the heavy truck, and one between the shafts of the chief’s red wagon.
And the same alarm which rang out in the lower floor, sounded also in the room above, where the men lay sleeping. Bruce heard it just as he was dreaming of the old days in the village beside Lake Ontario, and he sprang to the floor, and struggled into his turnout, before he fairly realized that he was in New York, and not in the country. But, quick as he was, he was not a second ahead of the other men, and as he slid down one of the shining poles, he found that fully half the company had got down before him. By this 344time the horses were all in their places, and the men had just finished hitching. The alarm was still ringing on the gong, and although Charley Weyman leaped to his place in the driver’s seat, the company did not start. It was a first alarm, but not one on which they were due. For a few moments they waited, while the horses tugged and strained at their bits, and stamped on the wooden floor in their eagerness to be off. Then the second alarm came, and Tom Brophy, who was at the wheel, drew on a pair of heavy woolen mittens, while the men pulled their thick caps down over their heads, and Weyman exclaimed, “Look out, fellows, we’ll get a third for that, sure!”
Bruce had watched these preparations with considerable excitement, and at the suggestion of one of the men, had pulled on a heavy skull-cap, and buttoned his thick overcoat close up to his neck. He was trembling violently, but whether it was from the cold or excitement he did not know. He had never been out on a third alarm before, and the thought that the very next minute might send him out into the biting storm on an errand such as the one that had cost his father his life, sent the blood tingling through his veins.
345“Jump in, Bruce!”
It was Chief Trask who said this. And as the boy made answer he continued in his sharp soldierly voice, “If we get a third alarm I want you to come with me in the wagon.”
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the brass gong sounded for a third time, and almost instantly the doors were thrown back with a roar and rumble, there was a rattle of the ropes which supported the harness, as Weyman pulled his reins with a sharp and sudden jerk, and Bruce, who by this time was seated in the chief’s wagon with his superior officer beside him, felt the horse bounding forward, and the next moment was out in the blinding storm.
Strange to say he had kept his wits about him and knew in what part of the town the alarm-box from which the signal had come was situated. As they passed over the threshold, Chief Trask turned the horse sharply to the left, and then without a word, placed the reins in the boy’s hands, stooped down and drew his helmet from under the seat of the wagon, and put it on, and then buttoned his jacket tightly about his neck and peered forward through the falling snow trying to catch a glimpse of the distant fire.
346“And now my chance has come,” said Bruce Decker to himself, for what with the cold air in his face and the necessity for careful driving, his excitement had vanished, and he felt as cool as one of the snowflakes that settled on his cheek. “I’m going to a big fire now, and I’m going to make a record if it costs me a leg.”
And he drove on through the snow with Chief Trask sitting in silence by his side, and the hook and ladder company thundering along close behind them.
“Turn here?” he said to his superior as they drew near a broad thoroughfare leading up-town.
“Yes, and hurry up too,” was the reply, and as he pulled the horse’s head around at the intersection of the two streets, he saw several blocks ahead of him a brilliant, ruddy glare on the white snow that showed where the conflagration was. He knew at once that it was a big fire, and just then Charley Weyman, who had been rapidly gaining on him, turned his horses to the left and attempted to go by him. This was something the boy had not been looking for; he well knew that bad as it was to be beaten in the race to a fire by a rival company, it would be 347still worse to be passed on the way by his own truck which he was supposed to lead. Charley was driving the three strong horses that belonged to the apparatus, and Bruce held the reins over a sturdy black that had been recently added to the quarters for the chief’s special use. In an instant he had grasped the whip from its socket, and brought it down on the broad, snowflaked back in front of him, causing the animal to bound forward at a slightly increased gait, but not fast enough to prevent Charles Weyman’s team from creeping slowly up to him. Again he swung his whip, and they raced along, the boy driving with so much vigor and skill that he soon forged ahead, and took a lead of fully twenty yards, which he maintained until they reached the scene of the disaster. Then he pulled up. The chief leaped to the ground, and just then the truck thundered along with the captain standing on the turntable close to the driver into whose ears he had been shouting his orders.
As the chief leaped from his wagon, Bruce realized for the first time the extent of the conflagration which they had been called upon to subdue. From the upper windows of the hotel streams of smoke were issuing, while in others he could see the half-clad forms of men and women who were looking out and shouting to those in the street below for assistance.
The sidewalk in front of the main entrance was already thronged with people, many of whom were only partly dressed, and had evidently been aroused from their beds by the alarm of fire. One or two of them carried bundles in their hand, and there were some who had dragged their trunks down the stairs and out into the roadway, and were now sitting on them, regarding, in a bewildered fashion, the progress of the fire.
And now the people in the windows above began to throw satchels and other light articles out into the street, and one or two of them fell near enough to the spot where 349Bruce was sitting in his wagon to make it apparent to him that he had better move away. His horse was panting and sweating from the exertion of his run, and so the boy threw a heavy blanket over him, and then hitched him to a lamp-post a block away. Then he returned to the truck, and stood for a moment watching the streams of water which the firemen were turning on the hotel.
Chief Trask, who, at the moment of his arrival had reported to the deputy in charge of the fire, now appeared and ordered his men to come up at once and open the roof; and, in obedience to this command, some of them seized axes and others hooks and endeavored to force an entrance into the building next door to the hotel. But the door resisted their attempts, and then Chief Trask briefly ordered them to get the ram.
The ram, a heavy-headed iron shaft, with handles projecting on either side, was brought from the truck, and in the hands of three or four of the strongest men of the company, soon proved formidable enough to demolish the heavy front door, and afford the firemen means of access to the building. In they went, with roof-ropes and hoisting tools, Bruce 350following with his iron hook in his hand; and as soon as they had broken their way to the staircase, they went up on a swift run and were not long in reaching the skylight. In an instant they had unfastened the scuttle and were out on the roof in the midst of the wind and the snow. Beside them towered the wall of the hotel, fully twenty-five feet above the roof, on which they were standing.
“Cap, get up a thirty-five-foot ladder for that roof, as quick as you can!” commanded the chief; and in a moment a long rope was uncoiled, and one end thrown over the edge of the building to the men below. To these the chief shouted his directions, lying at full length on the snow-covered roof, and bending his head down over the cornice in a difficult attempt to make himself heard. Then a thirty-five-foot ladder, with the end of the rope tied around its sides and under its middle rounds was reared against the wall, and with a strong pull the chief and his followers pulled it up until it was within their reach.
Once on the roof, the ladder was speedily raised, and placed as securely as it was possible to place it against the wall of the burning hotel. Then, with the chief leading and 351Bruce bringing up the rear, the men made the ascent, and stood at last on the parapet of the building, from which they descended to the tin roof. The smoke was rising about them now in dense clouds, and the chief knowing that the hotel itself must be filled with it, ordered his men to begin at once the task of breaking skylights and ventilators and cutting a hole in the tin roof to serve as a vent.
To this task the firemen bent themselves with characteristic energy, cutting a big square hole with their axes, and then turning back the tin with their hooks. This done, it was an easy matter to break through the boards and plaster that formed the ceiling, and thus give a vent to the smoke and flames. In the meantime other axemen had demolished one of the scuttles, so that dense clouds, enlivened here and there by brilliant tongues of fire, were pouring out through the two huge openings.
As the men stood resting after their labors, and waiting for further orders from the chief, Bruce crept along to the edge of the roof, and leaning over it looked down into the street below. He could see that fully a dozen fire-engines were at work now. He could hear the noise they made, and it sounded like 352the distant strokes of so many pile-drivers. The police had arrived by this time, and driven the crowd back from in front of the hotel, leaving none there but the firemen and some of the escaping guests. The snow which lay so white and pure on the roofs and in the other streets that were within his range of vision, was trampled into a black slush, while the heat of the flames had already melted some of the drifts that lay close at hand.
A fire-escape, connecting the different stories of the burning building, attracted his attention, and it seemed to him to be crowded with frightened people who were hurrying down it as fast as they could, some carrying bags or bundles, while others who had not even taken time to dress, were in their night clothes, and apparently perfectly oblivious of the awful storm of wind and snow that raged about them. And as he noted all these things he saw coming down the broad avenue a fire-engine driven at the top of the horses’ speed and belching out a column of black smoke from its funnel, while the red-hot cinders, falling from the ash-pan, sizzled and then went out in little breaths of steam in the snow that lay thick on the streets. And now a sudden 353shout arose from the men and women on the fire-escape, and was echoed by those in the street underneath. The boy looked down, startled by the loud cries, and saw the flames bursting out of the building at the sixth story, completely enveloping the frail iron stairway on which the hapless guests were going down, and cutting off the escape of those who still lingered on the upper floors. He saw at once the danger in which these people were, and realized that in their half-crazed condition they were liable to throw themselves to the ground.
“Chief!” he cried, running over to the scuttle where that officer stood, “there are a lot of people on the fire-escape and the flames are coming out right under them. Can’t we save them?” In an instant Chief Trask had run to the edge of the roof, and thrown himself at full length on the snow covered surface so that he could look down as the boy had a few moments before.
“Hold on there!” he yelled to those who found themselves cut off, and who seemed ready to take the most desperate chances to save their lives. “Don’t jump! Stay right where you are and we’ll save you in a couple of minutes.”
354His words and the authoritative way in which they were uttered made an instant impression on the frightened men and women to whom they were addressed, and when these looked up above them and saw the helmet of a fireman extended beyond the cornice, they felt assured that succor was at hand, and despite their awful position of peril they gave vent to a feeble cheer.
“Go back into the hotel!” screamed Chief Trask at the top of his lungs, for the wind was blowing so fiercely that it was with great difficulty he could make himself heard.
“We can’t go back! We were driven out by the smoke!” yelled a man in stentorian tones.
“I tell you to go back at once and I’ll come down with my men and take you out of the building,” rejoined the fireman in stern, commanding tones, which left the frightened guests no alternative but to obey. Accordingly they climbed in at the windows from which they had escaped, and found that the rooms were no longer filled with smoke, as they had been before, because, although they did not know it, the open skylight and holes made in the roof by the firemen had drawn most of the smoke out of the building, and 355made it possible for people to move about in the upper stories without fear of suffocation.
Having seen that his orders were obeyed, Chief Trask lifted a scuttle which had not previously been touched by the firemen, and finding that very little smoke came up through the open hatchway, and also that the volumes that were pouring through the other apertures were not nearly as dense or as black as they were before, he summoned his men, and, leading the way himself, bade them follow into the interior of the hotel. Bruce went with him, leaving the scuttle open behind him.
Meantime the firemen outside the building had not been idle. There were twelve fire-engines on the ground, four hook and ladder companies and a water-tower, and of these four engine companies had been ordered to enter the hotel by the main entrance, while four more had gone around to the side and rear entrances, and the others were at work in the streets throwing water against the burning wall and also upon the roofs of the buildings adjoining. As for the hook and ladder companies, some of them were in the building helping to tear down partitions and ceilings, 356while others had put up their scaling ladders and were going from window to window in order to save any people who might be imprisoned in the rooms. Others had ascended to the roofs of the neighboring houses, and were lending efficient aid to the firemen by helping to haul the long lengths of hose up from the street.
At this critical moment, and when the fire seemed to be making steady headway in spite of the desperate and diligent efforts of those who were fighting it, the sharp clang of a gong was heard on the street, and immediately the crowd which had gathered, despite the awful storm that was raging, parted in the middle. The policemen on guard saluted, and a wagon, drawn by a panting and sweating horse, dashed through the fire-lines and drew up suddenly at the curbstone. The tall, grizzled, and soldierly looking man who alighted was evidently a person of importance, for in an instant the deputy chief in command of operations appeared before him and saluted him in military style.
The newcomer was tall and well built. He wore a thick fireman’s overcoat and a helmet. His face was grave and stern, and smooth shaved, save for a grey moustache.
357“What have you sent out?” he demanded curtly of his deputy, as with a quick glance of his practiced eye he took in all the details of the scene in which he found himself.
Once more the chief of the fire department surveyed the burning building before him. Then, without a word, he turned on his heel and walked rapidly to the corner of the street, where he could have a better view of the fire and of its exposure on all sides. He was back again in less than a minute, and ordered his subordinate to send out a special call for two engines and a truck company, in order to locate more companies on the north side of the fire. Then he ordered the immediate erection of a water-tower on the eastern side, and stood silently regarding the men, as they placed it in position.
About this time the fuel-wagons sent out by the companies which had arrived on the first and second alarms, began to come in loaded with cans of coal, and with small boys sitting on them ready to lift them to the ground and make themselves as useful as possible, simply for the sake of being inside the fire-lines and imagining themselves to be firemen. There is no fire in New York, no 358matter at what time of the day or the night, that does not attract its swarm of boys, who are only too anxious to load and unload the fuel-cans, in order to get into the thick of the excitement.