If This Hat Could Talk

“They often forget about us here at the front. Thank you.” A fireman told us as we handed him a bottle of water as he sat in his truck on the edge of Fullerton, furthest from the scene. We had been supplying snacks and water to emergency workers on site of the 3-alarm fire that broke out around 1:30 p.m.

Earlier yesterday I had read the news article at work, my eyes skimmed over select words “Lincoln Park, extra alarm, Roy’s, American Red Cross.” That is my street. That is my intersection. That was my Red Cross family on-site across from my home. It became almost instinct what I knew I had to do.

I spotted the red vests on Montana Street after I looked for a few minutes, already in my Red Cross shirt with badge on. DAT volunteer, Rich, had clearly done this before, as he told me he’d been with the Red Cross for over 10 years. “Wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. Justin had been to over 100 fires in one year. Natalie walked on site spontaneously, just like me to join her fellow Red Crossers. We had never met before, but we were already implied family.

It was just after 6 p.m. when Rich told me to turn around and look at a fire helmet perched on the Lincoln Park iron fence. “Oh, if that hat could talk,” he said. We looked at the reflectors that had once been bright yellow, all black now, with frayed brim edges. That hat didn’t need words to tell it’s story either.

What may be described as “chaos” to an brief onlooker turned into a routine after witnessing it for six hours. Countless immediate response crews were on the scene with those firefighters: the CTA, Streets and Sanitation, the gas company, police, and aid workers. They do this routine for a living – it’s natural to them. “It’s really organized chaos,” Danny, a 7-year Chicago dedicated volunteer firefighter told me. 

I started chatting with another, who had half of his face covered in soot from the blowing smoke. “We know how to follow orders, it’s a natural thing for us. It only looks like chaos to some people.”

By the time 10 p.m. came, none of the front-line firefighters had eaten anything due to their work. On a break, the chief told us we could walk up to the ladder basket with the two gentlemen front and center.

I expected them to be exhausted, but what I didn’t expect was the high spirit both of them were in. “Rice KRISPIES?! Can you toss me two??!” one said. I could tell they loved their job as much as I did in that minute. Not from the words per say, but from the laughs, smiles and genuine appreciation to see someone by their side.

By the time the building had been half destructed, flames were still flickering. It was shortly after midnight. Those firemen were tired, sleepy and some kneeling on the ground.

“How long will you guys be out here tonight?” I asked one of them.

He took a long look at what used to be Roy’s Furniture shop, looked at his crew, then back at the flames.

“We’ll be here till the end,” he said.

 Written by Kate Wilkes

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