Chapter 7 - A List of Names for Vance
"I've got my men covering this quadrant here and Squad 47 has everyone they've got in this section here. If your men are trapped where you say they are, then we'll find them. The floor right below yours still hasn't been cleared yet but they radioed in a few minutes ago letting me know they were close to being done."
I'm standing in the street under a hastily erected tent leaning over the hood of a police car with the blueprints of the NCIS building and grounds spread over across the top of it. Captain Kent of the Metro Area Fire Department and I have come to the mutual conclusion that we can only pull this operation off successfully if we both work together so for the past 40 minutes we've been diligently cordoning off the blueprints in front of us into 20x20 grids that groups of assembled firefighters and police officers can search. Added to grid are red stars in the places I know large numbers of people could be trapped with one particular star drawing my eyes every few minutes or so. It's the last place I saw Tony and Gibbs and the unofficial focal point of the rescue effort (though equal attention is being paid to anyone else listed as missing on the list Ned Dorneget keeps updating for me). I've learned from the Captain and the various minions he has reporting to him periodically that we're the only building the tornado has managed to take a chunk out of so we have the whole of the Metro FD and PD at our disposal, the result of which looks like a 3 ring circus but in reality is a well oiled machine now that we've got egos and Type A personalities in check.
Captain Kent picks up his radio to check one more time on the progress in the building and I take a minute to step to the side and chug half of the bottle of water someone shoved into my hands an hour or so ago. Ever since Vance handed over the rescue reins to me from Dorneget it's been one disaster after another and I haven't had time to think let alone hydrate and I relish the cool liquid at is slides down my word weary throat. My existence has been condensed down to search grids and meetings with the various leaders of various rescue groups and it's a wonder I've managed to keep it all together for this long... or remember anyone's name for that matter. The one saving grace in all of this has been Dorneget and I remind myself yet again to remember to mention this to Vance when I get the chance. The guy has swallowed his pride and really stepped up and I can't help but feel a little fondness for the stumbling way in which he manages to keep me from washing out at this. He gets me the names I need, the updates I miss and corrects me when I get things wrong and I know what a cluster this would all be if he wasn't here with me to help (though I never thought in a million years I would ever say that about the guy who once got his tooth bugged and leaked classified information).
In the brief solitude I find myself in I let my eyes wander across the grass and towards the gaping hole at the front of NCIS and wonder where Tony and Gibbs are in all this madness. It's like a bomb went off and I can't help but picture what they might look like when the rescue teams eventually find them and pull them from the rubble. I keep telling myself that any minute now I'll hear some happy voice come over the radio to announce that they've found them alive and whole but as the hours tick away from me with reckless abandon, the chances of that outcome become more remote. And then there's always the possibility that one or both of them was sucked up into the twister and that we never will know what happened to them or recover their bodies. It's scenarios like that that have my stomach heaving, and I push them away like they're hot and just scaled me. I can't afford to think like that, not with the lives of so many people depending on the decisions I make in the coming hours.
Pulling me back to duty is Captain Kent who calls me back over to his map to reconfigure some of the grid and we lose ourselves in planning until it's time for another round of meetings with the leaders of the search groups. The engineers have cleared the floor beneath what's left of my office and the firemen reorder themselves so that a team can get up there and sweep the floor for survivors. Even as we prepare this I keep looking off to the east where another bank of tall thunderheads is gathering and know I'm not the only one who looks in that direction.
All non-essential personal (including the director who I was finally able to convince to leave) are in the process of being bused over to Quantico to be debriefed... except for Abby who stubbornly refuses to leave even after I promised to keep in constant contact with her over the phone. She's been flitting between me and the rescue workers delivering bottles of water and the hamburgers that a local merchant has been grilling up for the past hour on the edge of the debris. A lot of locals have turned out actually and while most have come just to gawk at the devastation, some have put themselves to good use and I know the rescue teams appreciate it. But dusk is on its way and the incoming bank of storms seems to be thinning the crowd of gawkers and Good Samaritans alike and someone has started erecting large banks of lights off to one side of the building so the rescue efforts can continue on after dark.
Also out there in the waning afternoon light is Jimmy Palmer and I add another name to the list of people I've got to mention to Vance when this is all over. Paramedics are in short supply now that people are starting to get pulled from the rubble at the base of the building and Jimmy has been helping out the local doctors over at the triage center set up under some tents put up in the tornado cleared parking lot off to my right. Ducky tried to stay behind as well but everyone backed me up on the decision to get his ass on a bus though he only agreed to go once he realized there would be superficial injuries to treat when everyone got safely to Quantico. I know Abby has been keeping everyone updated over there with frequent calls to Ducky and I'm secretly glad she told me to shove my order to leave 'where the sun don't shine' and I search for her dark hair in the crowd of dust covered heads. I can't spot her but knowing she's out there somewhere makes me feel better somehow.
I'm still pouring over the map with the Captain when the news comes over the radio that the floor beneath where Tony and Gibbs disappeared has been cleared of all survivors and dead. My friends are not among them and I watch with a growing dread as someone updates the numbers on the list of casualties and injured chalked onto a board someone set up on an easel in the tent our command center is assembled under. There are so many names already and every time the number in the 'dead' column grows, I want to turn around and throw up into the grass. I can't do that though. Can't show weakness, not when so many people are counting on me to get them through all this. The weight of that burden is staggering and I chug the rest of my water to hide the tremor that's taken over my body.
I'm not the right guy for this.
Gibbs should be here taking point and getting shit done because I've never been good at stuff like this... always the dutiful follower but never the leader. And yet here I am, put in charge by the Director of NCIS himself and coordinating a rescue effort of mythical proportions and doing an okay job at it. None of the disasters unfolding this day are the result of any folly of mine and for the first time since this crazy ass-backwards day started, I feel something like hope fill my chest cavity. Maybe I can do this and maybe Tony and Gibbs are still alive and any minute now I'll hear that happy announcement over the airwaves and cheer with the rest of the crowd when my friends are pulled from the rubble alive and intact. I let this thought fuel my confidence and keep my self-depreciating down to a minimum. If I turn soft now, this day will only get worse.
I'm right in the middle of a conversation with one of the engineers who's working on securing the ground level of the building when Dorneget appears at my elbow and tries to get my attention. But what this engineer is telling me is important and I put a hand out to silence him for a second and then try to apologize for my rudeness with a quick flick of my eyes in his direction. I think he understands and the engineer continues on with his update.
"Far as we can tell, Agent McGee, they might have fallen all the way down to the lobby. I got my guys clearing floors as fast as they can and as soon as humanly possible, we'll get crews in there to start clearing some of that debris."
It's that moment that Dorneget tries to interrupt us again and I bite back the urge to scold him like some petulant child.
"WHAT Dorneget?" I snap a little more harshly than I mean to (and I'm instantly sorry for it) but he takes it in stride and turns around to point towards the triage tent.
"Abby is over there with a woman who says she saw Gibbs about an hour ago. She's waiting for you over there."
"She says she saw Agent Gibbs?" I repeat for no reason other than to try and wrap my head around what I'm hearing. "You're sure?"
"That's what Abby says."
"Will you stay here Ned, while I go and check this out?"
"Sure thing, boss," he replies with a smile and I try to feel like I deserve the title.
I make my way over to the triage tent as fast I can but it takes me longer than I would like because I keep getting stopped every few feet or so to give or get an update on what's going on. Eventually I'm able to make it over to the tent and am greeted by the irony taint of blood as soon as I enter and the distinct smell fills my nostrils and tries to gag me. The smell of blood has always sickened me and I try not to let copious amounts of it in the tent bend me at the middle.
A line of stretchers extends from an opening in the side of the tent where ambulance after ambulance backs up to stuff themselves full with the injured and transport them to waiting hospitals, and I'm suddenly very aware of how terrible this disaster really is. On each stretcher lies a person who is injured enough to require a hospital and the line seems to go on forever and there's no one to blame it all on. It's one of those rare, senseless tragedies and I almost wish there was someone to track down and make pay for all of it, a picture to tape to the wall in the Bullpen that isn't there anymore, and a name to curse. But I have none of that and my parents raised me too Catholic to shake a fist at the sky and blame God so I swallow down the anger I have nothing to direct it at and make my over to where Jimmy and Abby are urgently questioning a gray-haired elderly woman I don't recognize.
"McGee!" Abby exclaims with more enthusiasm than I would have thought her capable of and throws her arms around me when I get over to where they stand. Jimmy's front is covered in blood so we settle on a handshake with uncomfortable chuckles when we realize we were about to hug for the 2nd time that day. Abby and our grey-haired Gibbs witness look back and forth between us like they're waiting for an explanation for our laughter, but I want to know why this little old lady with her leg in a splint is going around saying she's seen Gibbs and I look over at Abby expectantly.
"McGee, this is Mona. She works in HR and says she ran into Gibbs a little while ago in the lobby."
My eyes dart over to this Mona and she's looking up at me from her cot like she dares me to keep up my superior attitude with her and see what happens. She reminds me so much of my Penny in that moment that I have to take a second to remind myself that she's just an elderly woman with news of my boss. Regardless of who she is, I let my face soften and the tension fall away from my frame and try to relax as I ask her to please take me through what she remembers happening and she studies me for a moment like she's trying to figure out just what kind of man I am.
"I saw your Agent Gibbs about an hour ago." She starts, glaring at me when I start to interrupt with a question of my own. I give up with a shake of my head and let her continue.
"He helped me get out from underneath some rubble and then got me out of the building. When I left him he was getting ready to go back in and said I should find you or Ms. Sciuto here to let you know that..." She takes a second to think and I'm about to start questioning her integrity but as if she can sense my thought process, she shoots me another glare that effectively shuts me up and lets the rest out on an irritated breath.
"... that Tony is in the lobby right under where they fell through the floor and that he was going back in to stay with him until you guys could get the rescue workers in. They're by the receptionist desks so you should get someone in there right away if you haven't already."
"Did he say how Tony was?" I'm torn between the need for more information and the urge to hug this woman for the first good news I've heard in hours and I settle on pestering her for more information.
"No, but judging by the look on his face, I don't think things were going so well. He was pretty anxious to get back to him. I'm sorry, I should have asked him for more info." The sudden softness in her voice throws me off for a second and I realize she's picking up on the collective dread being thrown off by myself, Abby and Palmer at the same time, the poor woman with the broken leg stuck in the middle of it all.
"Mona, you telling me Agent Gibbs is alive is the best news I've heard since all of this started. No need to apologize."
"How did Gibbs look?" Jimmy asks, always the medical professional, and Mona's face turns stormy.
"He didn't say a word to me about it, but I could tell he was in a lot of pain and was looking pretty rough around the edges when I left him. Nothing really stood out, but I'm guessing he was trying to hide most of it."
Palmer and I share a concerned look behind Abby's back and I know in that moment that I need to get my ass in gear. I take one of Mona's hands in mine and give it a sincere shake.
"Thank you for letting us know about Agent Gibbs. I'm going to get the rescue teams on their location right away and see if we can find them." Mona nods and I let her hand drop then turn to Abby who's looking at me with that unreadable look again, that one she gets when she knows I'm about to do something stupid.
"I'll find 'em Abbs," I say putting my hands on her shoulders. "Both of them," and send this promise off in Jimmy's direction as well before I let my hands and drop and leave the tent the same way I came in.
The scene still looks the same when I exit and I don't know why I expected it to look any different now that I'm armed with new information on Tony and Gibbs' location. I make a beeline for the command center and grab as many critical people as I can find on the way so that I have a decent size group to address when we all make it back to our main base of operations.
"I got some new information on two people still missing. A witness saw Agent Gibbs in the lobby area about an hour ago and he told her he had a location on Tony DiNozzo as well. They're located by one of the two receptionist desk's where the majority of the destruction is so I need all available resources centered on this area here." I spout, pointing to the places I'm describing on the blueprints still spread across the roof of the police car.
To avoid them being blown away in the increasing wind someone has procured two large rocks and I don't let myself check the horizon again. Or worry about what the storm front still a ways away from us is doing. Instead I dive into coordinating the engineers to get the lobby cleared so we can start sending teams into the rubble beneath the broken face of NCIS and try to rein in my building anxiety. Things aren't going fast enough and it's an agonizing wait sitting in my little open air command center waiting for the all-clear to move people in. I want to get in there and start digging myself (and I fully intend to don a hardhat and try to get in there with the rescue teams) but I make myself stand there and wait with a cool exterior, all the while burning with uncertainty and frustration on the inside where no one can see. I've never been good at the waiting part though I'm pretty good at pretending I am just to piss Tony off who can't stand still on a stakeout to save his life. But our days of stakeouts could be over depending on how we find him and I try not to let that thought crack me apart... not after I've managed to keep it together for this long.
Even Dorneget and the Captain are stoic as we wait and it's like finding Gibbs and Tony will be the event that turns the tide in this nightmare. Like if we find them everything else will fall into place and the world will right itself again. I can only hope that this is true and wear a line in the grass with my pacing a I ride out the agonizing wait.
After what seems like hours, the all-clear finally sounds and I leave Dorneget with the Captain in Command and make my way across the lawn with a purloined hard hat with a crack down one side that looks like its seen better days. No one questions me or tries to stop me and I pick a place right at the front of the building where I have a good view of almost everything and stand with arms crossed as the rescue workers settle in to their trade. It's like they all know that I need this moment and as long as I stay out of the way, I don't think anyone is going to make me leave.
I'm there when the storm clouds pass overhead without so much as a drop of rain or rumble of thunder and I'm there when the sun sinks behind the horizon (shadows covering my feet) and I'm still there even when the generators roar to life and light the night sky with 100,000 watts of artificial day.
I stand there as they cart body after body out of the rubble, each stretcher stopping before me so I can check their faces to see if one of them is Gibbs or Tony, but none of them are and I stand there even when the building gives a shudder that has other men bolting for safety.
And I'm there when someone yells from inside that they've found them and don't let anyone stop me when I take off towards the huddled group pulling debris away as fast as they can to open up a protected bit of floor made safe by the NCIS sign that once made its home at front of the building. They'll need a crane to move the massive sign, but they're still able to clear a path to the figures hidden beneath it and I'm there when they manage to pull the first figure out from under the rubble.I hold my breath in that instant and pray with every bit of faith I have left that they're both still alive and that I don't have to bury two of my friends this day.