Fire, Firefighting, Firefights … Then Depression Unyielding

"I was working as a fireman, a job with lots of downtime, so I could study for my degrees. And drink."

Source slidezero/Getty

Why you should care

Because tomorrow is promised to no one.

By the time I reached 25, I had managed to fuck up my schooling, career path and every decent relationship with a woman I’d ever had. My only job prospect at the time was being a lead singer in an Oasis tribute band that was eking out a living enough to buy beers and drugs every weekend. Did I mention that I also flunked out of the Royal Marine Corp after six months? Well, I did.

Luckily, I still had what’s called a Higher National Diploma, or HND, here in the U.K. — which gets you into the third year for the bachelors — which I took eventually, as well as my masters and PGCE, or Post Graduate Certificate in Education. It just took me a while — mostly on account of liking booze, women and fighting too much. 

And I’d just spent the past few weeks being ill as hell in a remote part of Africa. But three days prior I got a message from an old friend, Jeff. Jeff was my partner in crime. We met when I took a job at the YMCA, George Williams House, a home for homeless teenagers. Over time, Jeff and I took different career paths: me teaching, him Special Forces. This past Wednesday, Jeff messaged me when I was off the coast of Africa.

The backstory: One day in October 2015, I’d been out all Saturday night pissed up like a madman. Drunk as a skunk, felt ill all Sunday, but knew I had to be at the station at midnight. I was working as a fireman, a job with lots of downtime, so I could study for my degrees. And drink.

[H]e had seen a lot. Afghanistan tours, friends dying and now no job prospects despite him being able to drive millions of dollars worth of tanks.

So I got to work feeling like shit. I sat down on my bed and looked at the clock. It said 12:01, and then the alarms went off. I ran downstairs and jumped in the engine, and we took off while I was scrambling to put my gear on.

The job was less than a mile away in the poorest area in town. We pulled around the corner and I remember looking at a house that was lit up, it looked like a Roman candle, and I was thinking, “There is no one alive in that.” That night I was “No. 3” on the fire engine, though, which meant I was the team leader of the two people to go into the fire, two off of each fire engine in attendance.

I knew we were going into the house as we pulled into the cul-de-sac: Mask down, clipped my data tag into the computerized board and in I ran.

 

I got as far as the first room and we immediately hit the deck because of the heat. I could not see my hand in front of my face. Someone screamed at me, “Casualty!” I couldn’t see a thing but someone shoved what felt like a duffel bag toward me; I grabbed it and backed out into fresh air. It was a fellow firefighter named Pat who later told me he found the guy who I thought was a duffel bag by accident. He just knelt on him because it was so hot.

I’d never seen a man look like that before. He was still on fire and looked like he was grinning. We all started patting him out and my friend saved his life by putting an “Opi Airway” down his throat and started pumping his chest before the ambulance took him away.

I heard he lived: three weeks in a coma with 30 percent of his body burned.

His wife messaged me, asked to speak with me. I hadn’t done this before. I asked my boss, what is the company line? He said, “There isn’t one.” But the guy I saved wanted to speak and I agreed. He messaged me on Facebook. His name was Ben and he said, “Thank you for saving me. I want to buy you a beer.”

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Ben and the author

Source Huey Williams

“Of course man, I fucking loved that you survived.”

We met up in a pub, hugged, kissed, got drunk. We went back to his place. We did some coke, he showed me the scars. I told him what a hero he was. He told me all about his Army days. He had been a few weeks out of leaving when his “accident” happened. 

But he had seen a lot. Afghanistan tours, friends dying and now no job prospects despite him being able to drive millions of dollars worth of tanks. Straight out of Rambo: First Blood kind of frustration.

He got a job in my local bar, so we saw each other often and became closer friends. He always got me a pint and told his mate, “This is the guy that saved me.” His mate bought me beers every time I was out. I found this embarrassing because, out of my crew, I was the least competent and an idiotic decision-maker. Despite that, this crew still treated me like a brother.

Ben messaged me a couple of weeks back, though: “Brother, I need to see you. Can you meet me Friday?”

“Sorry, man, I’m flying out to Africa on Thursday. I will meet you when I get back, and the beers are on me.”

But like I said, three days before I was going to fly home, my pal Jeff messaged me: “Ben killed himself.”

I fell to the floor and cried. I’d been signed off work for three months with depression before this happened. He was one of my success stories. I mean, he fucking lived. But now I can’t even say sorry for not meeting him for a beer.

I kept looking at his message: “Can you meet me Friday?”

I thought the toughest thing my friend went through was getting 30 percent of his body burned before I dragged him out of a house on fire. Turns out being in Afghanistan was so much worse. He could not live with the memories.

My kids asked their mom why daddy was crying, and my angel said, “Because his friend died.” Then they asked me. But how do you explain suicide to kids? I was lost, so I just said, “I will tell you later.” And I guess I will.

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