December 19, 11:02 AM Pacific
Bryan walked toward his ambulance carrying several white styrofoam containers. His stomach rumbled as the smell of shwarma, lamb for him and chicken for his partner, wafted out to mingle with the other delicious scents coming from the restaurant. The radio on his belt squawked out a warning tone, which was replaced by the dispatcher’s voice after a moment.
“”Unit 47, Headquarters. Echo response to Mercado Mall at 1776 Freedom Drive, El Segundo, on a Signal 7B1, further information to follow.”
Bryan swore as he ran to his truck and threw their lunch behind the seat. His partner, Jen, started pulling out as soon as Bryan was in the door. After strapping in, he reached over and hit the switch for the lights and siren.
“So much for a hot meal,” Jen snapped as she turned away from the restaurant.
Bryan grabbed the radio handset and keyed the microphone, “Headquarters, Unit 47. En-route. Estimate arrival in one zero minutes,” he said as he checked their route on the terminal bolted to the dash in front of him.
The dispatcher replied, “Unit 47, update call status to 7D5. Break, Units 45 and 52, need you to back up 47 on a 7D5 at Mercado Mall.” The radio squawked as several units tried to talk over each other.
Jen looked over at Bryan and said, “What in hell is a 7D5?”
Bryan looked at the computer screen in front of his seat and replied, “Ummm, burns, multiple victims.”
Jen swore under her breath as she accelerated through the strip mall’s parking lot.
The dispatcher came on again. “All units responding to Mercado Mall, be advised El Segundo PD and Fire on scene at South Food Court entrance. Multiple explosions and multiple victims reported.”
“47, roger,” he replied, “Will advise when we are on-scene.”
Jen accelerated as they pulled onto the street, pushing the ambulance hard and swerving around stopped cars and motorists who did not get out of the way. Her progress was impeded at a light by two people in sports cars, who were in a disagreement over who was going straight and who was turning. She nudged her bumper within inches of both cars before the drivers noticed the large white and orange truck with flashing lights and a siren, and backed their vehicles out of the intersection enough for her to get through.
The dispatcher interrupted Jen’s eloquent dissertation on the heritage and intelligence of California drivers. “All units, hold for emergency traffic only. 45, 47, 52, Supervisor 43, switch to disaster ops channel.”
Bryan stabbed at the radio with his finger, switching it to the new channel.
The supervisor’s voice came on immediately, “47, what is your ETA?”
Bryan glanced out the window to get his bearings, saying into the handset, “47, ETA seven minutes.”
He peered at the terminal, then said, “Holy shit! PD is reporting about 20 casualties who could walk out on their own, with an unknown number still inside.”
Jen looked over at her partner in shock, then quickly returned her attention to the road.
Bryan continued to read, “Fire and PD say that they’ve swept the interior, and found no secondary devices. Secondary devices?”
“Bombs,” Jen said, “They’re looking for bombs.”
Bryan gulped at that. He had thought it was a gas explosion.
As they approached the mall, the supervisor came back on the radio. “El Segundo Fire is on scene, advise staging area near South Food Court Entrance.”
“Where is that?” Jen asked as they drew near to the mall. Bryan started to relay the question to dispatch, then pointed to a large wall of glass windows and doors.
“There!” he cried, pointing to the mass of police cars and people in front of them.
Jen slowed as they turned into the parking lot, and zig-zagged past several cars, which had stopped without pulling over.
“I’ll check in with IC. You get the stretcher and the first-in bag,” she said calmly, “Bring extra bandages and burn sheets, too. Once we’re cleared inside, we’ll do a hot lap and hang triage tags.”
The dispatch supervisor came on the radio as they pulled up to the entrance, “45, 47, 52, El Segundo Fire Chief is commander on scene. Report arrival.” Bryan keyed the microphone and reported their status.
Jen slowed to a halt next to a red SUV with a spinning light on top of it. An older man wearing a windbreaker with reflective tape on it walked over as they got out.
“I’m Rearden from El Segundo Fire,” he said, “We’ve set up a triage area for all of the Green’s over there. So far, about thirty have been able to walk out. Mostly minor injuries, but there’re a few that’ll need transport.”
“Scene secure?” Jen said as Bryan walked quickly to the back of the truck and opened the doors. He climbed up and began putting supplies and gear onto their stretcher.
Rearden nodded, “Looks like multiple explosions in the food court and in the main hall. Lots of people down, but we haven’t found any secondary devices. Bomb squad hasn’t gotten here yet, though,” he replied.
Jen nodded as she walked to the back of the truck.
Rearden continued, “I’ve got two crews in there checking for people who can’t come out on their own. One’s in the food court, the other’s over at the playground.”
Jen froze at that for a heartbeat, but then grabbed the last bag of gear and tossed it on the stretcher. She helped Bryan lift it down, and they both started walking toward the building.
“We’ll hit the food court,” she called over her shoulder. Bryan radioed dispatch and told them of their plans. He could hear the sirens of other units as they arrived.
As they walked up to the building, they could see fire crews assessing the survivors who could walk out on their own. Most were either sitting on the ground or standing and gawking at the broken glass doors of the mall, but several were laying on blankets or stretchers while paramedics tended to them.
Bryan relayed to dispatch that they were entering the mall as they stepped through what had once been a wall of plate glass windows and entered a large hall filled with smoke and the screams of the wounded and afraid.
Bryan and Jen walked through the dim light of the mall’s entrance. Jen turned on her flashlight and called out, “This is Yellow Branch Ambulance! If you can hear me, come to the sound of my voice!”
Several people got up and started limping toward her. Jen and Bryan walked them to the entrance, where they handed them off to the firefighters. Once everyone who could walk out was gone, they started assessing the victims who lay in the rubble.
Bryan pointed to a pair of people in fire gear who were working their way around the area to the right of the door. Jen nodded and headed off to the left. She paused to check a woman who was laying under a table, tipping her head back to open her airway, but shook her head as she hung a triage tag around her ankle, then ripped the bottom tabs off until only the last, black, tab remained. “Keep moving,” she said. Bryan nodded and moved on to the next person.
The pair worked their way across the front of the food court, assessing each person as they went. One or two were able to get up with a little coaching and walk themselves out of the building. Those waiting for them in the triage area in the parking lot would tag them.
Others were assessed and hung with a tag either showing a yellow tab, signifying someone who could wait to be transported and treated, or a red one, for those who needed immediate transport. The people who were obviously dead, or soon would be, had their tag ripped down to the black tab.
Crews from other units began to filter into the building and put those with red tags onto boards and stretchers. Jen noted the quickly diminishing number of tags on their stretcher and moved deeper into what had been the dining area.
The two made their way through knocked over chairs and tables ripped from their steel posts, checking bodies as they went. Jen’s face grew sterner and sterner as they worked, her words becoming clipped and more direct when she talked. Tears were streaming down Bryan’s face when he almost tripped over a pair of legs in torn jeans and their owner screamed.
It was a teenage boy, his torso bare, but covered in blood. He held a girl in his arms, who was weakly crying out and moaning. Next to them, the body of another girl lay in a pool of blood, her neck mangled as if a beast had chewed on it. The ice cream stand they leaned against was scarred and blackened, and the body of a young woman wearing what had once been an immaculate white tee shirt, which read “Christmas Means Peppermint Fudge!”, lay crumpled on the shattered shelves behind it.
Jen knelt down on the bloody tiles and gently touched the boy’s face. He stopped yelling and looked up at the paramedic.
“Help her!” he cried out, lifting the girl up and shoving her toward Jen.
Jen caught the girl’s body and gently lowered her to the floor. She was clutching at her belly, with blood running between her fingers. Her mouth moved weakly, and soft moans came out with every shallow breath. Her eyes were wide and staring at something a long way off.
“Honey, I need you to let me see, now,” Jen said, forcing herself to sound calm as she tried to pry the dark-haired girl’s fingers apart. Next to her, Bryan was working on the boy.
“He’s a green. Multiple lacerations on his back and legs, but it looks superficial,” he said, reverting to training. He hung a tag from the boy’s wrist.
“She’s a red. We’ve got a belly wound here,” Jen called back, giving up on getting the girl to release her grip on her abdomen, “We’ll take her out. Give me a hand.” Together, they picked her up and placed her on the stretcher, then strapped her down. Bryan stood up and waved to another pair of paramedics who were following their path through the wreckage.
“Over here!” he called, “We’re taking these two out! Take over triage!”
As the second crew continued assessing victims, Jen and Bryan hefted the stretcher and its human cargo up and started walking toward the entrance. The boy put his hand on the stretcher and followed.
They passed several paramedic teams, firefighters, and police officers who were sorting through debris to find survivors or aid those who had already been assessed. Ahead of them, other teams were carrying out the wounded, sometimes with help from other survivors who had come back inside the mall to assist.
As they got past the area most strewn with shattered tabletops and bodies, they paused to drop the legs and wheels on their stretcher. Both dropped to their knees when they heard the sound of several large explosions outside, then what remained of the glass front of the mall blew in, scattering shards among the debris, the wounded, and the first responders. The boy fell back screaming as several hit him in the chest and neck.
None of them heard the explosions as the second wave of bombs inside the mall detonated. Multiple devices hidden in bags or dropped into trash receptacles detonated exactly sixty minutes after the first bombs had torn into the crowded mall.