Hellcat. Adobe Stock Image.
“Ma’am, is there anyone inside?”
The sirens of incoming firetrucks wailed in the background. A loud hum came from the pumper with its multiple attack lines stretched like snakes across the yard and through the front door. Thick black smoke plumed from the burning house, spiraling up into the Savannah night sky.
“Coco and Genghis!” yelled the distressed-looking older woman, who, judging from her attire, seemed to have awakened only moments before finding herself there on the front lawn. Seeing the puzzlement that must have shown on my face as I opened the valve to my air pack, she added: “A Rottweiler and my kitty. He is not friendly.”
My crew, already masked, pulled in close for a lightning-fast huddle. With the current conditions inside, time was of the essence. I split our four-person crew evenly into two groups in order to expedite the search.
“Remember, we pull people out first, then those pets,” I said, instinctively checking my flashlights and thermal imaging camera to make doubly sure they were working properly. “She says no one’s inside but you know we do a thorough search anyways. You two hit a left-hand search. The two of us are headed right. Move.”
They knew the drill.
Illustration by Justin Crain.
My senior engineer, partner on his right side, entered through the front door first. The pair hit a hard left and crawled into the thick smoke. The smoke curled around them until it shrouded their silhouettes completely. I caught the occasional flicker of light as their flashlight beams scanned their surroundings. My search partner and I then proceeded into the house, dropping to our knees to get beneath the layer of smoke.
“Fire department! Fire department!” My partner and I yelled to announce ourselves as we quickly crawled across a floor littered with kicked-over furniture, keeping the outer wall on our right side. We searched through a series of bedrooms and a bathroom where the smoke had banked down from the ceiling to waist level. The noise inside the typical structure fire is much louder than the uninitiated might expect: chain saws cutting open ventilation holes above, the distant muffled sound of some firefighter cursing, furniture toppling over, occasional traffic over the radio. But that night, at least so far, no occupants. Not on or under beds. Not in closets. Not under windows or other places we occasionally find them. Perfect. All potential victims seemed to be outside. I could reallocate my team and start assisting the crews on hose lines or with ventilating the structure.
With the search for victims seemingly complete, my next task was to locate the other team. This ended up not being much of a problem, as just then, my senior engineer and his partner appeared from around a corner and crawled up to me, flashing the universal “okay” hand signal. This confirmed that there were no victims found on their side of the house. It was time for us to move on to a new assignment.
I was reaching for my radio to update my chief on the search progress when I looked over and saw something that froze me in my tracks. Not knowing if the smoke was playing tricks on my vision, I squinted and leaned in to get a better look at the strange silhouette that had suddenly appeared in the middle of the room. Initially, I thought it was a small horse; however, a quick scan with my thermal imaging camera revealed the frame of an astonishingly large Rottweiler.
Remembering the homeowner’s warning, I swiftly maneuvered around the enormous dog and snatched his collar from behind. The giant hardly flinched. Thick ropes of slobber hung from his mouth; large clumps of foam had accumulated around the muzzle. In the beam of my flashlight, I could see a glazed-over look in his eyes. But to my surprise, he turned out to be docile and compliant. I didn’t know, or care, whether it was the smoke inhalation or his good nature, just that he trotted along quickly and obediently with me to the front door and out to the lawn. Despite all the chaos around her, the elderly homeowner’s face lit up with a big smile as we emerged from the house.
“Ma’am, let these guys give Genghis some air,” I said as I ripped my mask off, waving to outside crews for assistance. One of the pump operators outside tended to the dog, administering O2 through a mask designed for our four-legged friends. “He ended up being quite friendly after all.”
Now it was the homeowner’s turn to be confused. “Oh, thank you so much,” she said, “but that isn’t Genghis or the one you need to watch out for.” My head tilted when she said this, prompting further explanation. “Kitty. He’s probably hiding in the main bedroom in the back.”
I gave my battalion chief a quick nod, and my crew instinctively began to mask up again. Reentering the house, we hurriedly made our way down the short hallway toward the master bedroom under a thick blanket of ominous black smoke. My flashlight illuminated the pink knitted bedcover that had been tossed aside moments before our arrival. Genghis, the cat, was here, somewhere. I shut the door behind us. Nobody comes in, nobody goes out. Little did I know that I had just sealed our fate: locking the prey in the predator’s domain.
It started with an unintelligible holler from one of my crew somewhere across the room. Flashlight beams darted across its pitch-black confines, allowing a brief glimpse of a large firefighter toppling over backward and a streak of orange that instantly disappeared back into the shadows. Then I heard one of my crew members cry out, in a muffled voice, “Over here! The shelf!” Turning, I saw that he was frantically gesturing toward a shelf laden with trinkets and books, steeped in shadows and not offering any answers.
Illustration by Justin Crain.
A second member of my crew approached the shelf to assist our colleague, one gloved hand outstretched to make the grab and the other aiming a flashlight. “Here kitty, kitty!” He was attempting to coax out our hidden feline adversary when a pair of large, glowing orange eyes appeared almost in slow motion from a darkened crevice. With the speed of a jungle cat, the beast went into full attack mode, leaping out of the darkness and onto the mask of my crew member.
The scene was reminiscent of the “facehugger” from the movie Alien. The cat was fully attached to my partner’s mask. Only screams of terror were able to escape its four-legged death grip. I lunged forward, determined to subdue the whirlwind of claws and liberate my hapless co-worker. Wearing the thick leather gloves that I had learned to rely on for my safety over the years, I grabbed a handful of orange fur. Then, with one foot on my crewmate’s hip and two hands on the demon, I exorcised it from his face.
The deed done, I triumphantly hoisted the cat up like a trophy for all to see. This, I soon realized, was a horrible and costly mistake. Despite my two-handed, white-knuckled grip, I watched in disbelief as the claws and teeth effortlessly spun around to face me, furry appendages flailing around ferociously like those of some doomsday terminator robot. Cold, emotionless eyes locked onto mine. There was nothing I could do but pray for the best as needle-sharp claws and teeth plunged through my gloves and into my flesh.
I have always told my team that clear, concise communication is crucial to our success during rescues. “AHHHHHHHH!” I screamed as I spun in wild circles, then crashed over a nightstand. Although it was unorthodox, my crew members completely understood my communication. But what could they do? Genghis was too fast. Before I could regain my composure, or sense of dignity, the cat was free of my grip. Effortlessly, and in what appeared to be an obvious attempt to mock me, he athletically catapulted himself off my mask and disappeared once again into the black abyss. The room went silent.
Picture it. Four figures enshrouded in smoke and darkness, using flashlights and thermal cameras to search for the predator that could strike at any moment, from any shadow. Four lambs awaiting slaughter. Genghis seemed to be taunting us as he moved like a ghost around the room, the occasional flash of orange over here, a window curtain fluttering over there. Suddenly, he launched into view with the grace and agility of a jaguar. He made a beeline to the window. I shoved my comrade out of my path, intending to corner Genghis, then open the window and release the hell spawn. I covered the window frame with my body, doing my best to corner Genghis, despite the risk of disembowelment. My gloved fingers fumbled frantically to flip the window latch, while at my feet Genghis thrashed and tumbled in a death roll. Then my radio crackled to life. My battalion chief, outside with the homeowner, was calling to inform me that he had located the cat, who appeared to them as one of those Garfield cutouts you occasionally see hanging on car windows.
Despite my two-handed, white-knuckled grip, I watched in disbelief as the claws and teeth effortlessly spun around to face me, furry appendages flailing around ferociously.
To my great dismay, the window seemed to be painted shut and had no intention of opening. “Get a fucking sheet!” I yelled, not daring to move and let the cat out of my trap. The growls and clawing noises grew more furious as my colleagues raced over. They held sheets up like nets, reminiscent of some prehistoric hunting scene. Whether the situation had tapped some primal hunting knowledge buried deep within them, or our teamwork was finally kicking in, they knew exactly what to do. “Now!” I yelled and dropped to my knees. Four men with two blankets dove at Genghis only to end up crashing into one another above me. The blankets found their resting place over my head.
That was it. That was enough. I knew we needed to end this game of cat and mouse before it got any further out of hand. Angry, I rose from the floor, assessing the scene and trying to calculate our next move. The two blankets hung from my air pack; the helmet lay crooked on my head. The bright scene lights outside now cast a glowing beam through the open shades. And there, balled up like a tightly coiled spring in the center of the bed, was the elusive Genghis. He seemed to have paused momentarily, for no other reason than to taunt us.
Knowing we would not get another chance at our prize, I struck. If you were to make a spreadsheet of notable jumps in history, where on one end you might find the likes of Michael Jordan sailing through the air gracefully, you would also find me leaping for this cat — way, way, way down on the far opposite end of that list. Very near, if not in, last place. “Jump” might not even be the right word. It was more of an exhausted belly-flop onto the bed, smothering the cat. Either way, it worked.
Through the screams of me or the cat, I do not remember which, my team understood that Genghis was finally caught. Swiftly, they worked to pull a pillow from its case and readied it beside me. There was a brief and desperate struggle as we transitioned him from my arms into the pillow sack. The sack, which sporadically and violently heaved, was held out at as far an arm’s length as physically possible as we made our way outside. I would love to be able to tell you that we were met with cheers and applause as we exited through the smoke, frazzled from our perilous task. In reality, as I handed the homeowner her beloved pet, my chief was already giving me our next assignment.
He was never mentioned beyond “One cat saved” in the report I filled out an hour or so later, but among those of us who were there, his name will live in infamy. If you were to ever ask me about dangerous grabs I’ve made during my time in the department, I will surely tell you the tale of Genghis, the hellcat.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as "Hellcat."
Writer and artist Justin Crain joined the Army in 1995, serving in the 1st Ranger Battalion until 2003. Since then, he’s been employed with the Savannah Fire Department and is currently serving as a captain on Rescue 2.
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