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The Birdwatcher Hill Fire book cover

The Birdwatcher Hill Fire
Wes Boyd
©2009, ©2015

Chapter 25

Joe had hardly turned his back when Josh had his cell phone out to call Northern States Tankage. He figured the best place to call was the office that coordinated with him on storage of the tank cars, and it only took a couple minutes to get to the girl he normally talked to.

“It’s kind of an unusual request,” she commented, “but I suppose in an emergency it ought to be all right. What exactly is it that you need?”

“Well, a non-pressurized tank car, pretty obviously,” Josh told her. “Something like a T-104 or T-105, preferably one that hasn’t been used to haul volatiles. And one that we can get at easily, if possible.”

“Well, let’s see what you have there,” the girl said. “Do you have more than one location where you store our tankers?”

“No, just one long spur that used to service a lumber yard,” Josh told here. “They’re all here in Spearfish Lake.”

“OK, here we are,” she said, obviously consulting a computer screen. “No. No. Uhhh, no . . . OK, we have car number NSTX 57545, that’s a T-105 set up for hauling molasses, it’d have to be steam cleaned the next time someone uses it anyway. It’s really the only one up there I see that meets your specs.”

“How long are you going to need it?”

“Hopefully not long,” Josh told her. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re done with it by morning.”

“Go ahead and use it,” she told him. “If there’s any damage or if you need it for more than twenty-four hours, we’ll have to do a formal agreement.”

“Good enough,” Josh replied, “Let’s see, that was NSTX 57545, right?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“Thanks, you’ve been a big help and there are some firemen who are going to be even more thankful than I am,” he replied, writing the number on the palm of his hand with a ball-point pen.

Josh punched the phone off and looked outside the cab, where Joe was standing on the loading dock, watching as they were trying to get Spearfish Lake 1 on the flatcar farthest down the dock. He opened the door and yelled, “All right, Joe, I got us a tank car. Now all I have to do is go get it.”

Joe tore his attention away and yelled back, “Great!”

“You’re going to have to be the one to figure out how to fill it and how to use it.”

Joe hustled over to the engine where he could talk at something less than the top of his lungs. “No problem,” he said as soon as he was close enough. “You know that spur that runs down the northeast side of the plant, along Whicher Street? Down where Pine dead-ends into Whicher, there are two fire hydrants. Park the car between them. I’ll see what I can do about an adapter while we’re filling it. How long before you can have it there?”

“Three, maybe four switch moves,” Josh told him. “It depends on where it is in the storage line. Ten minutes, give or take.”

“Go get it, I’ll have someone there as quick as I can.”

*   *   *

This was going to be tricky, Ron Penzance thought. He got down from the cab of Spearfish Lake 1 inside the plant, and went to check things out. “It’s going to be tight as snot to make that corner,” he told Steve Augsberg. “If you can move that last six or eight skids on the row to the right of the door it would help a lot.”

“Can do,” Steve told him without hesitation. He waved at a fork truck driver, then another, and within seconds the two big fork trucks were moving the first of the skids. “How do you figure on doing this?” Steve asked.

“Ain’t no way we can go straight through the door and still make the turn,” Ron explained. “So we’re going to have to go through on as much of an angle as we can and hope we can make the turn. I’m thinking that it might be better if I went back outside, turned the rig around and backed through the door. That’d give me a little more room to maneuver.”

“Do it,” Steve told him. “It’s going to take a couple minutes to get that area cleared out anyway.”

Backing up and maneuvering a rig as big as Spearfish Lake 1 is not a simple procedure. It takes finesse, spotters, and communication, among other things. Of necessity, it took Ron several minutes to back the rig out of the building, turn it around, and back it inside again. Still well inside the building in front of the door to the loading dock, he stopped, set the brake, and got out to look things over again. “It might work,” he told Steve. “I need to get it over a few feet, and then cut her as hard as I can as soon as the back end is out the door. I’m still not sure I’m going to make it, so I’ll need a spotter to keep me from backing the ass end right off the car. That could really louse things up.”

“Yeah, no fooling,” Steve said. “I’m just going to stay the hell out of your way and let you do what you need to do.”

“All right,” Ron told him, and told a couple firemen what he wanted them to look out for. In a minute or so he was climbing into the cab of the big pumper again. “Here goes nothing,” he commented as he put the truck into reverse again.

The first move – pulling ahead and backing up so he was a few feet to the engine’s right of where he had been – went easily. He continued backing, and could see that he was close to the door on the right of the engine. “Whoever’s back there, what’s my clearance on the right?” he called on the radio. “I want to skin that puppy as close as I can.”

“About six inches,” came the reply.

“Should be enough,” he said. “Let me know the instant the center of the real dual is outside the door.”

“Roger that,” came the reply. “Come on back.”

Ron moved the wheel a few inches and let up on the clutch, backing the truck up slowly. It inched backward, until he heard, “Dual is out.”

“Roger, here we go,” Ron replied. “Now I need someone monitoring my clearance to the left.” He cut the wheel hard to the right, and the big truck swung to the side as he continued to back up. He couldn’t get all wanted, but could glance out the front and see that the left front bumper was only inches away from piles of packed composition board. Stay as close to that as I can, he thought, until I’m almost binding the door.

What with the doors in the way he couldn’t see where he was going very well, but in the mirror he could see that he was closing in on the door to the left of the pumper. “Twelve inches to the door,” he heard. “Now eight. Now six or so.”

Ron stopped the pumper to straighten the wheels. “I hope this is going to do it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to come straight back until I get out the door.”

“Gonna be tight,” he heard another voice on the radio. “Come on back.”

Again, Ron began to back the pumper as slowly as he could manage. “Left rear is on the flat,” he heard sooner than he wanted to. “Cut her as hard as you can.”

Ron didn’t reply; he could see out the left side mirror that there was nothing to cut with. All he could do was keep backing and hope he could get to the point where the front bumper was out the door. “OK, you’ve got about eight feet to the far side of the flatcar,” he heard on the radio. “Come on back . . . now six feet . . . now four . . . two . . . one . . . STOP!!!”

“Shit!” Ron said aloud, although not into the radio. A good four feet of the front end of the truck was still inside the door, and he had no more maneuvering room, even to pull ahead and try it again. He figured he’d better set the brake and get out and look the situation over himself.

*   *   *

Josh and Danny didn’t get to see the agony of trying to load the pumper onto the flatcar; they’d uncoupled from the flat cars, backed out to the Clark Plywood yard lead, and up it to the rarely-used switch to the stub where the tank cars were stored. “Christ knows where this NSTX 57545 is,” Josh told Danny. “You’re just going to have to hike down there till you find it, uncouple it, and we’ll take the whole line with us.”

“What do you make the odds of it being the last car in line?” Danny laughed.

“That’s what Murphy’s Law would say,” Josh shook his head as he eased the Rock forward until its coupler closed on the first tank car in the line. “Let’s couple up first so I can start throwing air at those things.” It was a perfectly normal switching move, one they’d done thousands of times before in the twenty years off and on that Danny had been braking for Josh. Danny got down from the engine and began to trudge through the weeds down the line of cars. To the inexperienced eye, a tank car looks like a tank car, all pretty much the same, but there are many different variations in the setup in spite of all of these cars being painted black. All he had to do was find the one they needed, out of the couple of dozen that were parked along the barely used old siding.

It took him a while. Although each car averaged about fifty feet long, there were enough of them sitting there to add up to nearly a quarter mile’s worth. As it turned out, he was wrong; NSTX 57545 wasn’t the last car in line, but it might as well have been; it was the third from the last. It was only the work of a moment to pop the uncoupling lever and free it from the car behind it “OK, Josh, got it,” he called over his portable radio. “I’ll ride the step. Take her away.”

Josh didn’t bother to answer on the radio, but a quick hoot on the Rock’s horn told Danny that Josh was starting to back them out. He got up on the step at the corner of the car, took hold of a grab iron and held on tight. Slowly, the line of tank cars began to move; it took a couple minutes before Josh had backed them free of the siding.

As the switch came close, Danny called on the radio again to tell Josh how much farther he had to go to clear the switch, and felt the line of cars slow. It was still moving at something less than a walk when NSTX 57545 cleared the switch points; Danny hopped down off the grab iron, reported “Clear of the switch,” and walked over to throw the switch points the other way. In the distance he could hear the Rock rev up and the cars started to move toward him; he got back up on the step and rode them as Josh pushed them down the track.

Danny had to get off and on the step three more times before they were headed down the tracks where Joe wanted them. There was a curve that hid Whicher Street from them until they were almost up to the corner of the plant, but sitting on the pavement halfway down the side of the plant was a pickup truck, with hoses already hooked up to the two hydrants. Well, no question about where they want us to stop, he thought. He counted down the distance, and Josh had the train stopped within inches of what Danny figured was the right place. “This what you wanted?” he asked Joe, who was standing there.

“Looks like it’ll work,” Joe said. “How the hell big is it, anyway?”

Danny looked at the identification marks on the car. “Around twenty thousand gallons,” he said. “How long is it going to take you to fill it?”

“Not that long,” Joe told him. “We can get about 250 gallons a minute from each hydrant, that’s a thousand gallons in two minutes, so forty minutes to fill it, an hour when you allow for fucking around.”

“Good enough,” Danny said, going to uncouple the car. Before he did, he called Josh on the radio. “Joe estimates about an hour to fill the car.”

“OK,” Josh replied. “We’d better get the rest of these back where they came from. I think they’re going to want to move the flats before then.”

“OK,” Danny replied. “Give me a minute to get uncoupled.”

“Hey, Danny,” Joe said. “I know this is a stupid thing to ask, but how do you fill one of these things?”

“Usually they’re filled at the connection in the bottom,” Danny told him, “but if you crawl up on top you’ll find an inspection hatch that opens with a wheel. You might want to send a couple guys and a cheater bar up there, sometimes those things get a little stuck, especially if this thing has been hauling molasses.”

“OK, we’ll figure it out,” Joe said.

*   *   *

“Son of a bitch,” Ron Penzance said when he saw how Spearfish Lake 1 was sitting on the flat car. “Another damn two feet, if we were to let the rear duals hang over the edge a bit, and we’d have it.”

“Too bad they went somewhere else with that engine,” one of the firemen said. “They could back the flatcar up a bit, that’d twist the whole thing around enough to make it work, maybe.”

“I’m not sure it would work,” Ron said. “Now, what the hell are we going to do? There just ain’t no way to twist it any more.”

“Damn,” Steve shook his head. “So near, and yet so far.” He stood and looked at the oddly parked fire engine while his mind was working hard. “Hey, Ron,” he said finally. “How much does that thing weigh? We could pick the rear end of it up and set it over a bit, I’m thinking.”

“Well, it’s light for a fire engine, since it ain’t got no water to speak of,” Ron said. “I used to know how much it weighed but I’ve forgotten. About twelve tons, I guess.”

“Oh hell,” Steve said. “Twelve tons around this joint is nothing.” He pulled his cell phone out of the holster on his belt, dialed an autodial number and said, “Mary, get on the radio and get Big George over to the rail dock, pronto.” He heard a reply, then shut the cell phone off and stuck it back in its holster. “All right,” he said. “Let’s see what we have to work with for a lift point.”

“What’s Big George?” Ron asked.

“The biggest fork truck we have around this place,” Steve told him. “Twelve tons is pushing it a little, but there’d be some of the truck’s weight still on the front wheels.”

*   *   *

The one big question remaining about the tank car was how to hook a hose up to it. Joe figured there had to be some way to do it, and had already discussed the question with Steve. When he finally got a chance to look at the tank car Steve had already sent the plant’s machinist, over to see what he could do about building an adapter. The machinist got down under the car with Joe, and looked at the coupling at the bottom. “That looks like a four-inch GPG bayonet,” he said as soon as he got a look at it. “I’ve seen them, but I don’t have any sitting around that I know of.”

“You know what that looks like to me?” Joe said. “A four inch Blair fitting.”

“Blair fitting?”

“Years and years ago somebody sold the Blair City Council and Fire Department on this goofball hose fitting for their hydrants. Nobody else around here uses them, so all the departments around here keep a few Blair fitting adapters sitting around in case we have to work with them on a mutual aid call,” Joe explained. “There ought to be one or two on Spearfish Lake 1. I guess I better go see. Somebody crawl up on top of that thing, crack that inspection hatch and get some water flowing into it.”

Within a minutes Joe was in his own car, heading over to the far end of the building. He skidded to a stop in the parking place he’d had earlier, got out and headed inside and out onto the loading dock. There he was met with a strange sight: a great big fork lift was working some very long tines under the tires on the forward rear axle, as Ron knelt nearby to guide him in. Joe recognized in a second what they were going to try to do. “OK,” he said finally. “That ought to do it. Take it up easy.”

Joe could hear the fork truck gun up its motor, and in a few seconds the whole rear end of Spearfish Lake One was picked up a few inches. Ron knelt back down again, checked the clearance, and signaled the fork truck operator to back the rig up. Slowly, Spearfish Lake One came toward them; in only seconds, it was twisted around a little more, with the right wheels barely sitting on the edge of the flat car. Ron signaled the fork truck to let the truck back down, and then back out from under it. “That ought to do it,” he said. “Let me get back in the truck, somebody spot me, especially on the left side.”

“Just a second, Ron,” Joe said. “I know there’s a four-inch Blair fitting on that truck somewhere. I need to get it real quick.”

“Right middle equipment locker, probably,” Ron said, heading over to it. He opened the locker, found the fitting and handed it to Joe. “God knows what you need this for in such a rush.”

“I’ll explain later,” Joe told him. “Thanks!” With that he was gone, rushing toward his car again. It only took him a minute or so to slide to a stop at the far end of the plant. He got out, and showed the fitting to the machinist. “Is that your GPG bayonet?” he asked.

“Sure looks like it to me,” the machinist said.

“Good deal, I’ll have to tell the guys down at Blair that their asshole hose fitting was useful for once,” Joe said. “Let’s get a hose hooked up to that bottom fill valve and get some water flowing, just to make sure it works. Now, I’ve got to call Josh and find out what he wanted.”

*   *   *

Putting the tank cars they didn’t need back on the storage track didn’t take much effort, only one switch move. “Going to have to remember to go out and hook that hose line back up sometime,” Josh commented as he backed the Rock away from the tank cars. “Now, I suppose we ought to head back to the flats.”

“I’m wondering if they’re going to get that monster loaded,” Danny mused. “It looked like an awful tight turn to me.”

“Josh, this is the Clark dock,” they heard the radio speaker overhead say. “They’ve got that pumper loaded, it’d be nice if you could get over here and move the flats so it’ll be easier to load the tankers.”

“On our way, we should be there in a couple minutes,” Josh replied on the radio and turned to Danny. “Let’s do this quick. I think we’ve been farting around with this longer than we should have.”

Although their view was blocked to some degree by the bulkheads of the log flats, as they pulled up to the flatcars Josh could see that the big pumper had been loaded on the farthest flat. They were still jockeying it back and forth, trying to get it on the center of the car, but it was there. “I’ll be damned,” Danny said. “I didn’t think they could do that.”

“Well, they did,” Josh smiled. “I didn’t think they’d be able to do it either.”

By the time they got up to the loading dock and coupled onto the flat cars Joe was back on the dock himself; he stepped aboard the engine as Danny hooked up the air lines. “Shouldn’t take long to load the tankers,” he reported. “They’re shorter, and they know how to do it now, anyway. Do you think we can get by without chaining everything down?”

“Yeah, we should be able to,” Josh said. “We’ll want to have someone on each vehicle to make sure nothing walks too much. Are you going to be able to get the legs on the pumper down so you can use the ladder?”

“I think so, that’s what they’re messing around with,” Joe told him. “Ron’s getting some chains somewhere to be sure of it, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Anyway, it looks like the tank car is going to work but it’s going to take, oh, fifty minutes to fill it.”

“Good deal,” Josh said. “Are we going to want to wait around all that time to take it with us?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Joe said. “Is there any chance you could use another engine to bring it out to us as soon as it’s full?”

“Yeah, we can do that,” Josh said. “Danny, there won’t be much switching for now. Get a ride back over to the yard, fire up the off-duty stud, and you can do it. I know you know how to run those things, I’ve corked off on a long day often enough and let you run one. I can make do without a brakeman from here, and you should be able to handle it.”

“OK, I can do that.”

“Good,” Josh said. “Joe, have you got any idea how you’re going to hook that tank to the pumper?”

“Yeah, we’ve got an adapter that will work, so that’s not an issue. If I understand this setup right, the pumper is going to be on the far end of this rig, and the tank car will come up from behind. It’ll take us a few minutes to change hose connections, but we can be set up to do them on a moment’s notice. Ron sent one of the guys to round up some rope so we can tie the hose line onto the cars and not have to worry about it dragging.”

“OK, that’ll work,” Josh said. “You guys know how to hook that stuff up; if it’ll work, that’s all I care about it. Danny, before you head out to the fire, run down to the passing track and get the stud behind the tank car, and push it out there. Once you drop the tank car off you can take the stud back home and get back to your store.”

“Maybe I ought to just park the stud down by the crossing so I’d be around if you need me for something,” Danny offered.

“We’ll work it out,” Josh said. “Joe, why don’t you run Danny over to the yard, then come back and ride out to the fire with me? We ought to be ready to go about then and I know you can throw a switch if you have to.”

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To be continued . . .

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