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An Angel in the Fire

When a fireball came whizzing at me, I had no time to react, but lucky for me, an angel did.

An artist's rendering of a super-hero angel throwing a fireball

Every second mattered.

The blaze was less than two miles away, but it seemed like we’d never get there. Our fire squad barreled down the road. The siren screamed. My heart pounded inside my heavy turnout coat.

My job was to lead the charge into the blaze. The other men would follow. They were depending on me to deliver the knockout blow to put out as much of the fire as I could on my own.

I looked over the other firefighters on the squad. You could see their experience in the craggy lines on their faces. I was the young one, volunteering while I was in college.

I admired their cocky, macho confidence, relished being one of the guys. It reminded me of my four years in the Air Force, where I’d first learned to believe in myself and the men around me.

“Hey, Gary,” Captain Willie said. “Can you guess how much wood I chopped this morning?” The other firefighters started hooting and hollering, burning off nervous energy.

Captain Willie was a legend. He was at least 75, tough and leathery, and yes, he did still chop his own wood. He could practically put out a fire just by glaring at it. In the hottest blaze, Captain Willie never broke a sweat. He always remained calm and cool.

I remembered another fire I fought with Captain Willie at a convent. That same afternoon the Mother Superior came to the station to speak to the chief about the language someone had used at the scene. The chief tried to explain that it took a certain breed to be a firefighter.

He said, “Sometimes in the heat of the moment the men might call a shovel a spade, if you know what I mean.” “No, that’s where you’re wrong,” the Mother Superior gently chided. “They would call it a dang shovel. Or worse.” Still, she had faith that with God’s help we could change. “I’ll be praying for you,” she said on her way out.

All of us had gotten a good chuckle out of that. Praying was one thing I didn’t do very often. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the dangers. We risked our lives every time we left the station. But we were conditioned to be fearless.

At 24 I thought I was invincible anyway. I didn’t see any need to ask God to protect me. I put my faith in my training and in my fellow firefighters. I was confident that would see me through.

We could see the flames leaping into the night sky before we even reached the fire—a five-car garage totally engulfed. The heat was so intense that the shingles on the house 25 feet away were smoldering. The fire was spreading to surrounding bushes.

I jumped out of the squad, pulled the high-pressure hose from the reel and headed up the driveway to the garage. Flames shot 30 feet in the air, twisting and turning as if they were alive.

It felt like I was approaching a blast furnace, the heat so strong it literally pushed against me. Garages held gasoline, solvents and other materials that could explode at any moment. Still, I ran toward the blaze as fast as I could.

As close to the fire as humanly possible, I turned the hose on it. I soaked the roof of the house to keep the fire from spreading and doused the bushes. Then I turned to the garage, the heart of the blaze.

It was as if the fire and I were in combat. It retreated and I advanced. I felt the familiar rush that meant I was in control. No backing off. I’d put this sucker out all by myself!

The hose went limp. The spray of water became a useless trickle. The fire roared back to life. The heat was overwhelming. My face got hot, as if I had a sunburn. Steam rose off my coat. I backed away, the fire popping and banging at me.

Captain Willie came toward me, smoking a cigarette. “Stay where you are, son,” he said. “The water pressure will be back on soon. The boys just had to move the engine. You don’t want to get out of position.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “I felt like I was too close.”

“Nothing to worry about,” he rasped. “But I’ll stay here to keep you company. This fire’s a real son of a gun, ain’t it?” He added a few more colorful adjectives about the heat.

I wondered what the Mother Superior would do if she could see Captain Willie and me in this heat. Probably say a prayer for us, I thought, wryly.

One thing I knew, prayer wasn’t going to put out this fire. That was up to me and the other guys. Once the water came back I would have to dominate it. I sized up the garage and planned my attack.

It seemed like forever, but it was likely only a minute or two. The water returned. Captain Willie went back to direct the squad. Again, I sprayed the roof of the house and drenched the landscaping. Then I went at the garage once again. I broke out the windows and directed a high-pressure stream directly onto the hot spots inside.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something hurtling toward me—a burning object about the size of a basketball. It came right at my head, flames and smoke billowing out behind it. Fireball!

Someone pushed me down hard from above and behind. I fell flat against the driveway, my hands reaching out to catch me at the last second. I rolled over just as the red-hot flaming missile whizzed over me.

I looked around to find the person who had saved my life. Captain Willie? But there was no one within 100 feet of me. The guys were busy connecting hoses. But who else could have…Was it possible? I’d heard of people being touched by an angel, but I’d been tackled.

Looking up at the night sky, I said: “Thanks, boss. If that was you, I definitely owe you one.” I got to my feet and returned to fighting the fire with the others. Within a minute or two, it was mostly extinguished.

That night at the station I couldn’t stop thinking about the fireball. I asked around, thinking maybe I’d find someone who had shoved me down out of harm’s way. Was there some other explanation for what happened? Everyone on the squad confirmed what I’d seen with my own eyes. No one had been near me when I got up off the pavement.

Captain Willie was full of praise, slapping me on the back. “Great job,” he said. “You were a real fighter out there tonight.”

However, I felt incredibly small. With all my training and skill I hadn’t been able to save my own life. I would have needed superhuman reactions. Either God or a guardian angel had saved me. Any power I had was insignificant, not even measurable.

I thought about the Mother Superior and her faith. It had taken courage for her to come and confront the chief that day. Mother Superior was plenty tough, but she knew better than to take on a challenge without God. This tough firefighter decided to take a page from her book.

After that incident, every time the alarm rang and I grabbed my turnout coat, and pants, helmet and boots and hustled to the squad, the first thing I would do was say a silent prayer for our safety. Prayer had become the most powerful tool in my arsenal.

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