Frank wondered where in the world Olive could be. She had been sitting right across from him just a short time ago, before the fire and chaos began. Had she crawled in the wrong direction, away from the exit, dazed from the explosion?
Cinders and smoke floated all around him. He tried to hear anything that would help him find her. He’d already been calling her name, but the smoke was causing him problems with his throat. Could Olive already be outside? He hated the thought of leaving if she was nearby, needing help, and he didn’t want to chance that scenario.
Having fought quite a few fires himself as a volunteer firefighter, he knew exactly what a dilemma trying to find and rescue people in such a huge place would be, with its numerous rooms and many twists and turns of adjourning corridors. He hoped the two banquet rooms were empty that evening, but that still left the huge dining area with its alcoves around the room. Firefighters also had to rescue the kitchen staff in the large kitchen and check the restrooms, several utility rooms, and offices.
Joe’s voice came through the phone Frank was still holding to his ear. “Frank, stay with me.”
“Here,” Frank rasped out. Using his shoulder, he pushed an overturned table out of the way, thinking Olive might have been trapped under it. But no one was there.
“You are heading toward the exit, right, Frank?” Joe demanded. Frank didn’t know his brother was about to go into the burning restaurant. Joe had most of his protective gear on and was just about good to go.
“Olive could already be out of the building, safe,” Joe said. And his brother wasn’t. Joe planned on correcting that situation.
Frank’s head was pounding and it was not easy to keep from giving in to the overwhelming desire to start coughing and not stop.
“Go toward the exit now, Frank!” Joe could tell time was really running out. His brother couldn’t last a whole lot longer in there.
Frank knew he had to get out of there. Olive somehow wasn’t in there. Maybe she had made it outside. Something about Joe’s tone motivated Frank to move as quickly as possible in the direction of the exit. He was afraid he knew why.
“Stay….out,” Frank half-said, half-coughed, eyes watering. Then his phone fell from his hand. He didn’t take time to find it, but dropped the rest of the way to the floor and used his forearms to travel. Every movement seemed to get slower and slower and the exit farther and farther away as he attempted to swim through the thick sea of smoke.
Frank’s eyes lit up when he saw a pitcher with a portion of water in it on a nearby cart. It was sheltered from some of the smoke by being on the bottom shelf and with a tray that must have slid off and landed on top of it. He quickly soaked the cloth napkin he found and held it over his face. It helped sustain him.
The race between the flames on the various sections all along the expanse of roof and the firefighters continued with neither side giving up.
“Frank, hang on, big brother.”
Joe adjusted his air mask right before pulling on his gloves. Then he picked up the extinguisher he’d set on the ground for a moment and entered the burning restaurant. Knowing part of the building’s layout helped Joe, but at this point, though, it looked drastically different. Walking through the perilous maze, the fire-resistant turnout gear protected Joe from the tremendous heat the flames gave off.
It didn’t take long for the fire extinguisher to become empty. Tossing the canister aside, he battled his way through the smoke as well as a nearby collapsing wall that nearly crashed into him.
Sheer determination and fear for his brother kept him going forward without hesitation. He could hear the sound of his own breathing as well as the fire crackling along one of the interior walls and above.
Making his way toward the dining room, he was just about to the high arched side entrance when he heard the creaking. Blue eyes sought out where it was coming from, hoping it wasn’t going to interrupt his quest to save his brother.
He tried to dive out of the way as burning sections of ceiling fell, moving fast even with wearing the protective gear.
When the sounds of the crash quieted, the crackle of fire coming closer could still be heard.
Smoke swirled around Joe, who lay there, still and unmoving.
He didn’t see the tall person, also wearing clearly marked protective gear of the Bayport Fire Department, come from the opposite direction.
And even more, that person never saw Joe.
The thick smoke made everything look strange and hard to determine exactly where anything was located in the restaurant. Including the exits. Frank was pretty sure he was going in the right direction, but moving at all was becoming more difficult.
Almost to the side entryway of the dining room, near the palm trees, Frank stopped and started to rest his head against the carpeted floor. He was so tired. But he knew he couldn’t stop. Even when the wet cloth slipped from his fingers. He recognized he was getting closer to being overcome from smoke inhalation, but he couldn’t exactly do anything about that.
With great effort, he reached out his hand to take hold of the edge of the wide doorway, hoping to pull himself through faster using leverage. He planned on having one goal at a time. This next one was getting out of the dining area and into the hall. Attaining that was going to be a serious problem as the strength in his arm was fading and began to drop to the floor.
Until someone grasped his outstretched arm, halting the descent.
Looking up in surprise, Frank could see the gear of the Bayport Fire Department. Then the firefighter was flipping him over and placing the air mask on him. Wonderful, breathable air began fighting through the smoke Frank had breathed in, making its way into his lungs. He could hardly move at all on his own at this point.
The firefighter lifted Frank up after he’d gotten a few breaths of oxygen and carried him toward the exit. Smoke made the wreckage hard to see and avoid. The firefighter stumbled once, but didn’t let go of Frank.
Finally they were outside, and although it was still smoky, it was noticeably better. The darkness of the night was lit up by the glow from the fire and the lights from all of the emergency vehicles. Sounds of people shouting and helping others filled the air along with the smoke, which was choking to those outside the building as well.
The firefighter eased Frank onto the ground and placed the breathing apparatus on him. Frank’s eyes were closed, but his chest was rising and falling as he filled his lungs with oxygen. Throwing his gloves off, the firefighter began methodically checking Frank for injuries with trained, capable hands and eyes.
A short distance away, Iola, Con, and Nancy reacted when they saw the firefighter carrying Frank out of the burning building. They raced across the short distance to where the firefighter was tending to Frank. Iola had the first aid kit clutched in her hand.
Con got there first and clasped the firefighter’s shoulder while he leaned down next to him to help with Frank. One Hardy brother was at least alive and safe.
“Doing okay there, buddy?” Con asked.
Frank slowly opened his eyes, looking dazed, but he nodded and glanced up at the firefighter, making sure he was okay.
With one hand on Frank’s shoulder, the firefighter removed his helmet with his other hand, never taking his eyes off of his brother. Joe, sweat and soot on his face as well, was emotionally exhausted after that scare.
Iola had recognized her guy before he had taken off his protective head gear, running right for him. She now placed her hand lovingly on his cheek, and he looked at her, hoping she wasn’t too angry with him for disappearing like he had. Her eyes told him she loved him, and that she had been terrified for him and Frank.
“Oh, Frank, I knew you’d be okay, because it takes both of us to look after your brother,” Iola teased, while Joe made a face.
Frank managed a little grin for Iola as well as a wink of agreement. Then he heard another voice he recognized next to him.
“You two guys sure are good at scaring a person!” Nancy said softly. She watched as he looked over at her, lifted his hand up a little so he could sign ‘sorry’. She smiled, but her mouth still trembled from the fear she had felt for the two brothers.
Iola had opened the first aid kit and she and Joe were deftly doing as much as possible to help Frank. Con could see that they could handle Frank’s injuries and after lightly clasping Frank’s shoulder then Joe’s, he moved to go help others.
Moving in precision, Joe and Iola took care of Frank, asking him to let them know in sign where all he hurt. His throat was very sore from the smoke, but the relief of being able to breathe in oxygen helped push the pain aside somewhat. Even though he wasn’t still surrounded by smoke, he knew he’d be smelling it, and tasting it, for a long time to come.
“Olive Charlton is okay, Frank,” Iola told him then she glanced over at Joe. “That’s who got out of the restaurant right before you suited up, Joe.”
Frank was thankful to hear that and listened to what else Iola was saying.
“She is probably already at the hospital by now. Had some cuts. She was conscious and told me her name. I asked if she had seen you, and she said no, she had been dazed and just eventually found her way out of the building.” Iola shook her head.
EMTs came over to check on Frank right then, making the same assessments Joe and Iola had. Keeping the oxygen flowing, they lifted Frank onto a gurney.
Frank opened his eyes to look over at his brother nearby. He reached up a hand and Joe immediately grasped it.
“Dressed in a tux, surviving a building exploding, what, do you think you are a dashing spy or something?” asked Joe, his sapphire eyes teasing.
Frank’s eyes twinkled in response, chuckling silently.
The firefighters, battling hard, finally won and ended the fire’s furious attack on the restaurant. There were many injuries, but no lives were lost. The fire marshal spoke to the fire chief and Chief Ezra Collig, of the Bayport Police Department, on his preliminary findings.
“It was deliberately set,” the fire marshal said and explained how he’d come to that conclusion. He had some more information to add as well. “From the looks of things, the whole building could have blown up, with no survivors.”
Chief Collig listened as he scowled over at the still-smoking remains of what had been a grand restaurant. Whoever had done this was not going to get away with it. Even though whoever had set the explosives hadn’t succeeded, they could have killed everyone.
And that person, or persons, clearly ruthless and void of human decency and still out there somewhere, perhaps waiting for the next chance to strike, needed to be stopped.
Once at Bayport General and examined, Frank was admitted for observation, due to the head injury and loss of consciousness. He slept most of the time, but did find out that Olive had been treated and released already.
As he started to fall asleep again, after the nurse had checked on him, Frank puzzled on the reason for the explosion. Joe had told him what he had heard from Con.
Frank had another thought before drifting off to sleep. A thought that brought a smile to his handsome face and gave him good reason to sleep well.
The date was finally over.