I can feel it press down on me, pinning my arms at my side. The weight of it all constricts my chest from expanding, and each breath seems too shallow. So I take another and another, a series of short rapid inhalations, until I realize I am hyperventilating. My head, contorted to the side, chin pressed to my chest, I see nothing, an empty abyss, a thick veil of stygian darkness. The heaviness of it all seems impossible not to obliterate me, to press me into smashed pulp of gore and viscera. I feel as if I will disintegrate under the pressure.
Shards of wood, wreckage, nails and glass, construction debris digs in through the many protective layers of my turnout gear. It all hurts, stabs, points into my flesh, yet doesn’t penetrate the thick layer of protective fabric, does not puncture my skin. Instead it creates intense pressure points, digging themselves between the intercostal spaces of my ribs, the vertebral processes of my spine, the fascia of muscle. It is a constant weight of sharpness pressing into my body, under the sheer magnitude of multiple floors of debris.
The inky blackness is a relief and a curse. It smothers me, encompasses me, and swirls around my head, slipping through the facepiece of my mask, and fills it with an onyx despair. But in darkness, there is no fire. At least not yet. Black fume smoke, dark like coal ash swirling through the air, can hide the red consuming blaze, until you are right there, face to face with the fire breathing beast, an uncomfortable heat devouring your body as the temperature inside your turnout gear elevates, cooking you like a baked potato wrapped in aluminum foil. But this, this is different, like the murkiness you find in a cave deep beneath the earth, when a spelunker shuts off their light, only to realize, we don’t really know what the absence of light is.
Time. Time without a watch is nothing but an abstract thought that plays tricks with one’s mind. I begin to wonder, as my imprisonment seems to feel a lifetime, is anyone aware of my predicament? I begin to think about the respirator on my back, the oxygen bottle which is finite, and how my head is trapped in this awkward contortion. Trapped. My arms as well. I wiggle, move, shimmy, but nothing. Like my body has been bound and wrapped in a linen funeral shroud, a corpse executed, removed from a flat in a Persian rug by mafia henchmen. I have no ability to move, only to wait for the inevitable.
PASS alarm whines and screams in my ear. Its shrill tone lacerates the air around me, and bounces off any nook and cranny, echoing back to me like radar pings undersea. Irritating. Safety feature to save lives, but trapped, it is heinous torture, blotting out all sound around me. It drowns out any radio transmission, and my hindered state does not allow me to push the button to transmit. To say help. To utter the words mayday. In the cacophony of electronic wailing, I sit in deafening silence.
PSI. Air gauge. The tank upon my back will become my death. Trapped beneath the floors of debris, my leather helmet mashing into my skull in the most painful, uncomfortable way, my incapacity of limbs will become the nail in my coffin. As time ticks down, each second whittling away at a minute, each minute at an hour, the air in my tank slips away. Eventually, when that runs out, my mask will suck to my face. The tight seal that keeps smoke and hot gases out from my lungs during a fire, will prevent any air from reaching me, and I will suffocate a slow and painful death.
A hard plastic mask will suck to your face like an octopus latching its tentacles around your head, pulling tight with its suckers. I’ve had it happen during training, and it is a nauseous feeling even during simulation. At least during training, you can pull it off, and you pant and gasp as if you had just swam underwater the whole length of an olympic size pool with cigarette smoke riddled lungs. There isn’t enough air in the atmosphere for you as you gasp and inhale deeply. To suffer this fate, I imagine it feels like choking with a plastic bag, the thin film pulling into your mouth as you excitedly take breaths, hoping beyond reality that the next one will work.
It is in dark situations like this, when you have time to think about your mortality so close to its end, that you begin to weigh death. Fire or suffocation. Burn or smother. Desperate debate, pleading with whatever fates exist. Either way, you are aware you are dying, slowly dying. I cannot imagine my flesh melting off me head to toe, and being alive while it happens. If it happens before my air runs out, I won’t die of smoke inhalation, I will be cooked alive, conscious for the whole experience.
In the abysmal darkness I rationalize which would be worse. What is the preferable method of fatality? I come up with one answer, it is better to be alive. Neither is an option I wish to endure, but the crushing weight of concrete and steel, wood and glass, even nails and screws, they tell me otherwise. They remind me, even though I don’t have a choice, one will be made for me.
Each breath I take, each inhalation, each puff of the respirator, is one breath closer to quietus. Living is killing me. An essential function of the human body becomes a countdown clock to my essential ruin.
The PASS alarm screeches in my ear. It rings and reverberates as if it has penetrated my skull and has now ricocheted around like a .22 bullet inside a skull.
Trapped, I am trapped. Bound by concrete. Bound by the column laying across my back. With each breath in the darkness, I suffocate. With each breath reserved, fire increases in size, consuming the building, coming for me. Life now becomes waiting, and the terror of not knowing, becomes worse than death. Living is now a paradox.
I am trapped in my box of concrete rubble, awaiting a verdict. I am Schrodinger’s cat, neither dead or alive in that dark liminal space. Until I am found, my fate will not be decided.