A quiet June morning, 1987. I had time for coffee and paperwork before the busy public library in Billings, Mont., opened to the public.
Whump! A loud jolt rocked the building. Instantaneous thoughts flashed: “Earthquake. Jet breaking the sound barrier. No, more like a plane hitting somewhere near the building’s top floor.”
Dead silence. I grabbed my coffee and went out to find out what had happened. Barb came from a room near the back and suggested that the creaky freight elevator, built in the 1950s when the huge building was a hardware warehouse, seemed the likely source.
Then we heard feet running down stairs and voices yelling outside an emergency exit. I threw my cup down and flew down the open staircase from second to first floor. I yelled, “Call 911!” as I ran.
At the side entrance lobby for access to the fourth floor, which housed several city departments, employees were disappearing into the parking lot. Just one young man, Brian, stood there bouncing and screaming, “Help me, I’m burning up! I’m on fire! I’m burning!”
I wanted to take Brian by the shoulders to calm him. I was afraid he’d run out the door and disappear. I didn’t understand “burning” and “fire,” I just knew something bad had happened.
“Calm down. Hang on, the ambulance is coming. It’ll be right here,” I said.
Then Brian’s supervisor appeared, looking stricken by Brian’s screams. “Follow me!” he said.
They ran together into the library and I told myself, “Good, Greg knows what to do.”
I ran back upstairs to gather keys and purse and went across the street along the building’s front where I saw a parked ambulance. I ran back to unlock the library’s front entrance because I wasn’t sure EMTs would find Brian without knowing the layout. My hands fumbled but Jim, a member of the maintenance crew, appeared and unlocked the door for me. I noticed his arms were covered with gray ash.
“Oh, he got it too,” I thought, not comprehending what “it” was — just something bad. “Jim, go get on that ambulance,” I told him.
Staff had assembled in the parking lot to watch fire trucks and hoses. Someone had heard that the fourth-floor gas furnace had exploded. I hadn’t even known there was a furnace up there. Would the library be burned? Water-damaged?
When the public began arriving, cluelessly unhappy to find the front doors locked, we managed to cobble together some “closed” signs, thanks to supplies provided by the newspaper office across the street.
The full picture came in bits. Brian had been mopping the furnace room and had bumped the gas valve, the fire marshal later explained. Hearing and smelling the pressurized flow, he’d run downstairs to fetch Jim.
“Call 911!” Jim yelled. He’d tried to shut the valve while Brian watched, and what happened was a fireball!
Shock waves crumpled the office walls and fixtures, scattering any loose items. Brian’s metal mop bucket was flattened. But nothing burned except those two men at ground zero.
Brian had run outside and around to the side lobby at the same moment Greg, his supervisor, was accessing the building’s main gas valve with fumbled keys and brute strength. Coming back inside, Greg had taken Brian to a janitor’s sink and doused him with cold water. Brian and Jim were in the hospital for several weeks, but recovered fully. The library was untouched.
Funny perspectives happen in emergencies. The first three minutes seemed like 30. Greg remembered Brian’s burned hair smell, but not his screaming. I didn’t notice any smell, just his screaming and panic. The library’s business manager wondered why Brian wasn’t wearing a shirt. We learned later that a large piece of black material floating around on the lobby floor was the remains of Brian’s burned shirt.
We learned the facts. Maybe it was a miracle we survived.
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