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The Fire

by Phyllis Martens

Part 2

His (Johann Jungas) calm manner reassured Helena. She roused the children, instructed them to get dressed and put on their coats and scarves and go quietly downstairs and stand out in front of Hiebert and Franz, the grocery and drygoods store across the street. She would come too in a few minutes. The children grumbled at having to leave their warm beds, but hearing there was a fire, grew excited. When all of them were safely outside, Helena took a look around wondering what she could save if worst came to worst...pictures? Anna's new doll buggy? their clothes? The impossibility of it overwhelmed her, and with an impatient shake of her head she walked down the steps. She found the children, put the older girls in charge of the little ones and sent them off to her sister Tante Auna's house four blocks away. Al was busy hauling water. Young John, always curious, walked to the end of the block and then stopped to see what would happen.

When the wooden stairway in the alley began burning, the men decided to move the stock out of the hardware store. They shouted at the crowd to clear the street. People moved back to safer distances, drove their Model T's and buggies further down the snowy road. The farmers who had been hauling buckets began instead to move out Johann's stoves and washing machines into the street in front of the store.

A clanging bell announced the arrival of the fire engine. "About time!" Heppner yelled. "Get them hoses hooked up!" The fire engine, a Model A, carried hoses but no water. The firemen attached the hose to the fire hydrant at the park corner, but when they turned on the water, nothing happened--the pipes were frozen. The frustrated firemen began pouring water on the hydrant to thaw it.

By this time flames from the burning garage floor were shooting out of the shattered windows. Heppner told the men in the alley, who were knocking down the lower part of the burning stairway, to leave since the oil in the drums in the garage might explode any minute. Some of the boards on the alley side of the Jungas building were smoldering, paint blistering in the heat. The men threw in a few last buckets of water, then abandoned the alley to heat and smoke.

Johann ran up the stairs to the second floor to make sure his family was out. Several men went up after him. They soon returned carrying household goods they had snatched up and reported that the house was full of smoke. "Where's that blasted fire engine!" one of them yelled. "We could save the store!"

Sam Hempke ran up to Helena, who had returned from Tante Auna's and was standing across the street. "There isn't time to get your furniture out, but we want to go after your piano." It was a handsome new player piano, a Christmas present for the children.

Helena thought about the indoor staircase, long, steep and narrow. She shook her head. "No, you might get trapped on the stairs. I won't have anybody die because of a piano."

"Dick and I are willing to go up," Hempke said. "It's not too hot in there yet."

"No!" Helena said firmly. "Let it go."

Across the corner the firemen had given up trying to get water from the hydrant and had stationed themselves in front of the crowd to keep the street clear. Tongues of flame were flickering along the beams of the telephone office. A dozen small fires were burning on the Jungas roof.

A dozen men were hastily moving kitchen ranges and sewing machines out of the store--they set them down in the street in the snowy slush and ran back in for more. Others were carrying out armloads of shoe boxes, which they dumped on snow banks across the street. The shoes spilled out of the boxes, a rummage sale in the snow.

>From his vantage point at the street corner, young John watched with interest. When he saw fire on the Jungas roof he suddenly became afraid and turned to go to Tante Auna's. Just then he heard a roar, looked back, and saw flames shooting high into the night...the oil drums in the garage had gone up. Dense black smoke from the burning tires billowed over the store. The acrid smell of burning rubber and timber filled the air. John turned and ran.

The watching crowd retreated, crowding against Franz's store, retreating up the street to the park. The fire lit up their anxious faces. All jokes had long stopped.

Helena stood among those in front. She saw a small grey cat--little Anna's cat--dash into the open doors of the store between the legs of the men pushing out a washing machine. One of the men caught it and handed it to a bystander.

When the Jungas roof flared up, Helena, standing in the snow in her long brown winter coat and shawl, knew her home would go and Johann's store with it.

The cat, struggling, got away and ran like a mad thing back into the store. Johann caught it this time and threw it into the street, where it lay for a moment stunned. A boy ran forward and picked it up and tucked it under his jacket.

Blazing embers began falling into the street. The store was full of smoke. "Time to get out!" someone yelled. Two men, carrying out a sewing machine, stumbled in their haste. Johann called to the men to go. "Leave it, leave the rest!"

"Try to save Dunsmore's," the fire chief shouted. The Dunsmore house was down the block, next to Jungas's. The men began wetting down the walls with buckets of water handed from inside the house. Several climbed on the roof to stamp out flying sparks. Others were on the roof of Hiebert and Franz. Al had found a job filling buckets from the hand pump in the Dunsmore kitchen.

Now the fire was consuming the Jungas building. Flaming timbers from the roof crashed down, the windows glowed with the intense heat. Sinks, heaters, the heavy iron kitchen range plunged through the floor into the fiery basement.

"The piano!" someone shouted. Everybody looked upward. The flames illumined the parlor, as if the walls had become momentarily transparent. For a brief second the piano stood poised in mid-air, then in a white blaze it plunged down through the store and into the inferno below. A sigh rose from the crowd.

(Check again next month for Part 3)