Calen Palmer’s police-issued Ford Explorer veered sharply to the left, barely missing the large chunk of concrete, twisted rebar and other detritus strewn across the road. As he straightened the steering wheel, a blur of motion had him hitting the brakes hard.
The SUV skidded sideways on the dust-slicked road, shuddering to rest just inches from a wide-eyed woman. Her face and clothes were streaked with grime and blood, and she clutched a small bundle to her chest.
At the soft whine behind him, Cal looked over his shoulder. “It’s okay, Scout. You’re okay, pal,” he told his canine partner while he opened the driver’s door.
“Earthquake! We got an earthquake!” someone yelled. As if he didn’t know that already. But people were panicked and the guy must have been reacting to the San Diego Police Department markings on his vehicle.
Voices erupted all around as he ran to the woman.
He felt the surge of adrenaline. It was a baby she was holding. And the blanket was saturated with blood.
“How badly are you hurt?” he asked, as he gauged the severity of the cuts on the woman’s forehead and her right forearm, and checked her pupils for dilation.
“I…I’m okay,” she choked out through her sobs. “My baby. Lila…” She cast a terrified glance at the child she cradled against her.
“Let me see.” Cal eased back the blanket and scrutinized the tiny, scrunched-up face, the furiously working little mouth and the tightly fisted hands. The baby was alive. He did a quick, careful check. There were no obvious signs of trauma. The blood on the blanket was the woman’s, not the child’s.
“Your daughter appears fine,” he assured her. She didn’t respond, and he hoped she wasn’t going into shock. He had to leave. People’s lives depended on him and Scout, but he had to do what he could for the woman and her child.
A siren wailed, and Cal looked over at the ambulance barreling toward the intersection of University and West Washington. Dispatch had told him the triage area was set up in the parking lot of a nearby mall.
“Listen to me.” He shook the woman gently. “Listen, okay?” Finally, her gaze met his. “See where that ambulance is headed?” She nodded. “Go there. The hospital’s sent medical personnel. It’s not far. Maybe a five-minute walk. Have a doctor look at your baby. They’ll need to stitch up your arm, too.”
She stared at him, tears welling in her eyes.
“Do you understand?”
She nodded again, and was about to move away, but Cal glanced at the baby again and put a hand on her uninjured arm. “Wait a minute.”
He sprinted over to his truck, opened the passenger-side door and pulled a cotton sweatshirt from his duffel. Using a pocket knife, he tore off a sleeve as he ran back to the woman, and tied it around her arm as a makeshift bandage. He then quickly helped her remove the soiled blanket from her child and replaced it with the clean sweatshirt. The woman rested her forehead against her child’s, and murmured a thank-you. Cal tucked the cloth more snugly around the small form, and nudged the woman in the direction of the triage area. “Now go. Lila’ll be okay,” he said, and prayed he was right.
Jumping back into his vehicle, Cal continued to the incident command location he’d been given by dispatch. He veered around a crushed concrete column, toppled on its side. It was blocking part of the roadway, its upper half shattered, the exposed rebar bent and tangled. He knew the amount of force it took for concrete to fail, which didn’t bode well for what he’d see closer to the epicenter.
Cal was the newest member of the San Diego Police Department’s K-9 Unit, and wasn’t it just his luck that San Diego being one of the California cities they said was least prone to earthquakes just had a massive one. He’d heard that the quake was 7.6 on the Richter scale. He could see the devastation all around him as he approached Incident Command. An elevated section of the highway had collapsed, and portions of the road surface had heaved and buckled. A rippled concrete parapet wall leaned precariously over the roadway. Two low-rise buildings and a parking garage had also collapsed.
Cal pulled into the cordoned-off area that had been designated as Incident Command, and parked behind another SDPD vehicle.
Cops, firefighters, paramedics and panicked civilians were everywhere.
Cal recognized Riker, another officer with the department. He was in a huddle with a tall, plain-clothed man and a firefighter. Cal surmised that the man in plain clothes was the incident commander. He left Scout in the vehicle and went to join them. Introductions were made; he’d been right about the third man. His name was Williams and he was in charge.
“It looks bad,” Cal remarked. “Do we have any idea of the numbers yet?”
Williams shook his head. “Too soon to tell how many injuries and fatalities we’ll have. The fact that it’s late on a Friday afternoon might work to our advantage.” He jerked his head toward the collapsed structures. “They housed offices mostly. Let’s hope a lot of the workers cut out early.”
Cal scrutinized the buildings. One had collapsed in on itself. Most of the floor appeared to be intact, if skewed. Best-case scenario, the people inside had time to find shelter near the load-bearing walls and would have survived. The condition of the other building was far worse. A couple of the lower floors had crashed down on top of each other. There couldn’t have been much room for people left inside.
Cal heard Scout's muffled bark and knew his partner was anxious to get to work. He was always impressed by how intuitive police dogs were, sensing when they were needed. “Is it safe to go in?” Cal asked the commander. He’d done lots of search-and-rescues in the five months he’d been in San Diego and in his decade on the job with the Lincoln Police Department in Nebraska before then, but he’d never had to deal with an earthquake before. Sadly, there was a first time for everything.
“I think they’re clearing it now.” The firefighter motioned to a group of men near the entrance to one of the buildings. “But there’s always the possibility of aftershocks.” He glanced over at Cal’s SUV, clearly marked as part of the K-9 Unit. “You plan to go in?”
Cal studied the buildings, considered the risks involved. He thought about Haley and forced the image of his little girl with her blonde ringlets out of his mind. She wouldn’t know if he lived or died. He shrugged. “It’s why we’re here. It’s what Scout and I do.”
The commander gestured to one of the men by the building “We’ve got the all clear.”
“Thanks.” Cal shook hands with Williams, Riker and the firefighter before jogging to his vehicle. He opened the back side door and signaled for Scout to jump out. Scout yipped excitedly and Cal took a moment to rub the dog’s head and ruffle his fur, then attached his leash to his collar. Knowing it would be dry, dusty work and with no idea how long it would be before they could take a break, he gave Scout a drink from a water bottle.
With another hand signal, he alerted Scout that he was now officially on duty, and they headed toward the collapsed buildings and the men gathered on the roadway in front of them.
Jessica Hansen had been at Ocean Crest Hospital when the earthquake hit. Because of its severity, the hospital had immediately activated its critical incident response plan, including the deployment of the trauma team. The trauma team was responsible for onsite triaging and treating the injured, and dispatching those who needed additional care to the hospital. As a trauma surgeon, Jessica would’ve been called in regardless, but being at the hospital made it easier for her to mobilize a team and get to the site.
Ocean Crest was the closest hospital to the earthquake’s epicenter, where most of the injured would be, and no more than a few miles from where they were setting up the triage area. A 7.6 quake was virtually unheard of in San Diego, but as a trauma doc she’d experienced quakes of a much lower magnitude that still had significant consequences. She knew this would be grave.
Thank heaven the hospital itself was largely unaffected by the quake. But then it had been designed to higher standards to ensure that it did. From the reports already coming in, they’d need all available resources, both human and physical.
In the hour since Jessica, the other trauma docs and a few of the emergency room nurses had set up at the designated triage site, she’d already seen at least a dozen people, and there were many more waiting.
She swiped impatiently at the sweat and loose strands of hair on her forehead as she finished splinting an elderly man’s badly fractured forearm, and sent him off to the hospital.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, she counted slowly to ten. She had to stay sharp, she reminded herself. She couldn’t be unsettled by the young boy she’d treated and sent to the hospital just before the older man. The boy had lost a lot of blood. Too much blood. Her vision blurred and she swallowed hard against the nausea. If she gave in, she’d be no good to anyone.
She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder. “You okay, Jess?”
Jessica slid her clammy hand over her brow and turned. Marcia Rodrigues stood behind her, the furrows on her forehead more pronounced than usual, concern evident on her face. The gray-haired nurse, now in her sixties, had worked in the emergency room at Ocean Crest longer than Jessica’s thirty-one years, but they’d formed a strong bond—both professional and personal. “It was the boy, wasn’t it?” Marcia asked.
Jessica passed her hand lightly over Marcia’s. “Yes, and thank you. I’m okay now.” She glanced around. “Did anyone else notice?”
“No. Of course not. I just know you well.”
Jessica was certain that her episode and the subsequent exchange with Marcia took no more than a minute. But a minute could mean life or death in a crisis situation. She silently berated herself for her lapse. After all, this was why she’d given up pediatric surgery in favor of trauma. If she couldn’t maintain her composure under these conditions, she had to ask herself if she was fit to practice medicine at all.
Jessica barely had time to finish the thought when Marcia brought her the next patient. It wasn’t a child; she knew Marcia well enough that she didn’t think she’d be seeing more children that day, but she was relieved regardless.
But she was in charge. She shouldn’t have to be protected.
Most importantly, she could not, would not, fall apart. “Focus, Hansen,” she ordered herself under her breath as she examined the mangled leg of the woman in front of her.