Excerpt: Lucinda had buckled the seatbelt holding her in the car, normally the safer place to be. Not this time. The car rolled down the hill for twenty or thirty feet and then disappeared into one of the ravines which had appeared and deepened ever since Janos Rigo had visited the site. The sedan tumbled in sideways and landed on the passenger side, driver side up and passenger side down.
We stopped the car and checked on Bratty, who was breathing but out cold. Within a couple of minutes, Lucinda began calling for help. “Can’t move…leg… stuck…”
Vito grabbed a fire extinguisher and a rope from his trunk, and he and Karl ran down the hill as fast as the terrain would permit. I followed a bit behind. After several tries, Emma gave up on Vito’s cell phone–too many hills–and drove his car back to the Institute to call 911.
We thought ourselves trained, vigorous, and able to handle difficult situations. Before Karl and Vito even reached the ravine, little feathers of smoke were drifting up. By the time they could peer into the uneven earthen mouth, the car was starting to burn. The earth retained the heat, and Lucinda’s calls for help soon turned to screams.
If you wanted to position a car so that it would burn slowly, you would position it like Bratty’s new foreign sedan that awful day: stuck in a v-shaped ravine, on its side but not level, the front end higher than the rear end by almost 30 degrees. The fire started in the engine and worked its way toward the fuel lines, an occasional tiny flame rising straight up and working inch by inch back to the gas tank. Neither the extinguisher nor the rope seemed to help. The car was at least ten feet down, and the extinguisher could only slow the fire a bit. As for the rope, what could we tie it to besides each other? Maybe if we’d had more time we could have thought of a plan, maybe not.
The fire was now hot enough that we could feel its intensity even standing on the edge of the ravine.
I thought I had heard screams before in childhood fears and nightmares. Those were nothing. Vito, Karl, and I heard screams of a different order for the next half an hour – half an eternity – that day of the Institute’s open house. People who burn alive in agony scream as their outer layers, one by one, succumb to the flames. They scream in fear, scream for help, scream their anger at fate and their helplessness, scream their despair as body and future, layer by layer, become no more.
It was unbearable.
We struggled with all our strength and agility to save her. Emma had the car, of course, and we didn’t have much of anything in the way of equipment other than the rope and the nearly-spent fire extinguisher, which we hoped would buy us some time.
Vito and Karl lowered themselves down to pull her out but the driver’s side door had re-closed, almost too hot to touch. Vito’s six-feet-plus and Karl’s six-feet-minus were enough to span the ten feet down but not enough to maneuver once they were near the car. First Vito went down, then Karl, a dark head followed by a blonde one, both of them stumbling and slipping against the ravine’s ragged sides. The flames were going straight up, first just a few, then more and higher. Reach down through the flames, open the door straight up, reach in, untangle her from the seatbelt and whatever was pinning her leg, pull her out, straight up. No equipment, no protective clothing…no chance.
And she screamed. And begged. And screamed.
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