Where Horror and Heroism Prevailed (continued...)
Flames shot out of the Beverly Hills Supper Club. The wail of sirens from approaching fire trucks filled the air.
''We've got a hell of a problem up here,'' Ernie Pretot barked into his police radio.
Against the tide rushed Bruce Rath, hell-bent on entering the burning building. People were trapped near the Cabaret Room. Lots of people. He lowered his head and plunged inside.
After an especially tough night on the job, a firefighter's helmet is smoky dark on top but remains bright red on the underside of the brim. It's for protection, that helmet. Bruce Rath let it part the smoke ahead of him as he headed down the hallway, turning left first, then right.
He saw the snarl of bodies near the double doors at the end of the hallway. People stacked higher than a grown man. The pile grew as he stared. Panic-stricken patrons in dinner jackets and evening gowns fell and dove, entangling themselves hopelessly. People screamed. Hands clawed at him. He heard a voice and grabbed a woman in yellow.
Bruce carried her outside and set her in the grass. ''My family,'' she said. ''Breathe deep,'' he told her. Then he plunged back in.
Over and over, Fireman 51 dragged people to safety, sometimes two at a time. His lungs started to ache. He saw a woman climbing across tables, her dress ablaze, and grabbing her, threw her down and patted out the flames.
When he reached down to pick her up, a woman at the bottom of the pile suddenly reached for him. Her face was black with oil and soot. ''Please, please, get me out of here,'' she said. ''I have babies at home.'' Then, reaching out in a panic, she tore off his air mask.
That was it for Fireman 51, who had been laboring to breathe even with the mask. Bruce Rath's world faded to black, and he collapsed inside the burning building.
Out Of Air
When Bruce Rath came to, his alarm was ringing. He was running out of air. A Covington firefighter stepped on his leg. Bruce was wide awake now, and he was staring right into the face of the girl he had been trying to rescue -- the one who had been scrambling across the tables.
Taking a rope from his helmet, he tied her hands together, threw them over his neck, and dog-walked her across the floor to the door.
Every muscle in his body felt as if it were torn. He couldn't breathe. Carrying 80 pounds of equipment and body after body had worn him down.
''Are you all right?'' Covington firefighter Jim McDermott asked.
''Get this damn mask off me,'' Bruce said. ''I can't breathe.
Mr. McDermott rolled him over, took the woman from him, pulled his mask off and unfastened his bunker coat. Then the two of them rolled the woman onto Bruce's coat and dragged her across the grass to safety.
It was Shirley Prugh.
Bruce Rath rested briefly. A woman gave him oxygen from a bottle. He looked around, feeling better physically but now overcome emotionally. Everywhere he looked were bodies. How in hell could this happen?
He started looking for the first woman he had saved.
He started looking for Karen Prugh.
When he finds her, she's on her back in the grass. He can't stop looking at her. Except for the black streaks in her hair, Karen resembles Bruce's wife. She's blond. She's small.
''She's dead,'' a doctor says, straightening up.
Anger flashes hot across Bruce's brain. He just pulled this woman out of the fire. She was alive. She was worried about her family. How can this guy say she's dead?
''Bullshit,'' Bruce says.
The doctor bristles.
''I should know,'' he says.
But Bruce is through listening. He searches carefully for a pulse, pressing his broad, blunt fingers against her pale neck. Nothing. Against her thigh. Is that a glimmer of life? The doctor's long gone.
''I need help!'' Bruce screams, then begins mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
For half an hour, maybe more, he stays there, determined to save this woman, working, working, working -- now blowing into her mouth; now pumping her chest. He gets her back, he loses her. He gets her back, he loses her. He keeps this up, oblivious to the chaos all around him, until finally the spell is broken.
''Hey, fireman,'' someone yells. But there are fireman all around. Bruce pays no attention, concentrating with all his might on finding a flicker of life in Karen Prugh.
Bruce looks up. Fooomp, a flash.
His picture will be in the morning paper.
Beverly Rath stays out on the neighbors' porch talking for a long time before returning home to tuck the kids in bed. She turns out the lights in their rooms, then descends the stairs to watch the news.
She thinks her husband is invincible, thinks he can do anything. She trusts in him so deeply, people think she's crazy. That time he went out fishing on the Ohio River with her cousin's husband and daughter and their own two oldest sons: They hadn't come back till after dark.
''What're you worried about?'' Beverly asked her cousin. ''Bruce would never let anything happen. He'll take care of everybody.''
It was after 10 when they returned that night, unharmed but in for trouble. Bruce's mother, Margaret, and Beverly's cousin, were waiting at the dock in Wilder. And they were furious.
But the guys at the fire house could tell you: If they go into a fire, they want Bruce with them. He looks out for his partners.
Beverly lies down on the couch. For once, doubt creeps into her heart. Doubt and fear. Where is the man who stood waiting for her red-faced at the altar?
Where is the boy who took a beating for her one summer night on a quiet street in Fort Thomas?
Two Lives Saved
Bruce Rath lifts Karen Prugh as she starts to sputter. She coughs, spits up thick, black mucous, then wraps her arms around Fireman 51, clinging to him for dear life. She will ride all the way to the hospital that way. Shirley Prugh will share the ambulance with them.
Having saved Karen and Shirley and delivered them from the hillside, Bruce returns to the fire. He is exhausted, spent. He sits on a wall in front of what used to be the Beverly Hills Supper Club, waiting for a van to take him back to the fire house.
He is dazed, desperately in need of sleep. As he sits there idle, the night begins to catch up with him. They're carrying people past -- some in wire-mesh stokes baskets, others on army stretchers. One after another. A macabre parade. This one to the hospital. This one to the morgue.
A gust of wind that should be refreshing on this muggy night instead plays a horrible prank. It lifts the corner of a sheet off a woman's head, and for a moment, Bruce Rath is staring into the face of death. It is blistered and peeling. The hair is crinkled from heat.
Softly at first, Fireman 51 begins to cry. Then the weeping turns to sobbing, then to nausea. Bruce vomits.
One of the other firefighters says: ''How the hell did we get involved in this? When I came out as a firefighter, I thought I'd come out and put out a fire and everybody would say, 'Hey, thanks.' And we'd all go home.''