They Call Us Blue Canaries

Years ago, when I was a front-line uniformed officer, my partner and I had just finished a call and were driving down a very narrow street. On either side were row houses that had been divided and then divided again into rooms-for-rent, inhabited with people who were as down-and-out as the buildings themselves. A toothless man appeared at my window and began banging on the car, screaming:

FIRE!

Both Chris, my partner, and I looked to our left and saw smoke billowing out the second floor window of the three-storey house. From what we could make out from his garbled screaming, there were several people–many of whom had mobility issues–still inside.

Waiting was not an option.

We bailed out of the car and ran towards what was quickly becoming an inferno. Chris was a much fast runner than I (everyone was a much faster runner than I) and got there first, yanking open the front door. Once inside, we pounded on each of the six doors on the main floor, waiting for a response.

One man wouldn’t leave without his cat. I grabbed it and pushed it into its carrier. Man and Cat were safe.

Another hadn’t left his room in months. His wheelchair had been stolen and he was still waiting for the cash to buy a new one. We told him to put his arms around our necks and Chris and I lifted him out to safety.

A woman wouldn’t open her door to us, but agreed to climb out the ground floor window.

And so it went, until everyone on the main floor was accounted for.

By this time, the firetrucks had arrived. One fire crew was busy hosing down the roofs and walls of the houses on either side of our address. Another crew was just suiting up to go inside the burning house.

Inside, smoke was billowing down the stairs like water rushing over rocks in a flooding stream. The walls, years of oil-based paint layered on them, had caught on fire as if the had been doused with lighter fluid. The floorboards below were starting to splinter and collapse as the flames ate them up.

My partner had already ran up the stairs and was somewhere on the other side.

Past the second floor and up to the third, I looked back to see that I could not return the way I had come. It was gone.

When I got to the third floor, I couldn’t see anything above my knees, so I dropped and crawled. I called out, but there was no answer. All I could see was light at the end of the hallway.

I crawled towards it. An open door. A scalding hot metal fire escape.

Looking down, I saw Chris hopping over a wooden fence into the neighbouring yard to safety. I quickly followed.

The paramedics met us on the street, oxygen masks in hand. I overheard a firefighter commented to one of his colleagues that cops were always running into fires without any protective gear, just like canaries flying into a mineshaft. And, not unlike the canaries, more often than not, they didn’t come out alive.

And that’s why they call us Blue Canaries.

Until next week, I’m 10-7 for shift.

Desmond Ryan – Real Detective. Real Crime. Fiction

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