I SWEAR, I do more than cover fires. In fact, I'm pretty adept at avoiding lead stories altogether. But with colder weather upon us and the ratings period in full-swing, fires are bound to happen. And occasionally, I'm on call when they do...
Woke up on the phone again this week. The shrieking of the bedside telephone ripped me from the abyss of hard-earned slumber around 2:30 Friday morning, or so I assume.
Truth is, I didn't regain consciousness until about ten seconds into the call.
"...on Vine near Centennial. Can you check it out "
"Snorgle thwat? ", I offered. Blinking into the pitch black, I pictured a giant Viking ship lying on its side - an image from the dream I was just having.
"Vine street! There's a God-awful house fire on Vine street. The scanner's goin' nuts - says there's people jumping out the window. Can you roll on it?"
Now I was awake. As I sit up in bed, I could hear the feint sound of a fire truck's wail echoing in the distance. Must be pretty bad if they're rolling units from as far away as my neighborhood.
"I don't have gear - I gotta come by the station. Print the street directions and meet me at the back ramp in ten minutes."
I hung up before she could answer and rolled out of bed - upsetting the cat in the process, and prompting an unintelligible grunt from my sleeping bride. Minutes later I was working the gears of my pick-up through the deserted streets of High Point. As the overnight deejay quizzed his guest about the Kennedy assassination, I rubbed my eyes and fumbled around the dark for my wallet. Not finding it, I blew through a red light at an empty intersection instead - hoping the city cops who liked to loiter nearby were instead checking out the four alarm fire just blocks away.
They must have been, because I wheeled into the station parking lot a few short minutes later. Felicia, the overnight producer opened the door as I sprinted up the loading ramp and ran past her. Just inside the door, the camera lockers stood silently in a row. I popped open the one with the Stevie Ray Vaughan sticker on it and grabbed my battered betacam and a few lukewarm batteries - all while Felicia ran through the details in a scattered stream-of-consciousness.
"According to Mapquest, Vine street's a block off Centennial - near the homeless shelter. The city's rolling everything they got - scanner said there could be as many as thirteen people involved -- "
Her voice trailed off as I ran down the ramp, juggling my gear and wondering what looked so odd about my news Explorer parked in the distance.
I figured it out as soon as I got behind the wheel and swerved onto the street. The steering wheel pulled sharply to the left, and as I leaned out the window and looked down, the sight of my half-flat front tire told me why. Cursing under my breath, I made a sharp right into the parking lot of a closed gas station and scanned the perimeter. AIR - 50 CENTS, the sign read above the dented yellow air box on the side of the building. A wave of relief washed over me, before crashing into the shores of my own stupidity.
Idling by the air-hose machine, I jammed my hands in my pockets and scoured every nook and cranny of my dashboard. Nothing - not a dime, let alone five of them. Cursing my ill-preparedness I stared through the windshield and did the math. Going back to the station and switching out my gear to another news unit would chew up time I didn't have. With a sigh, I dropped the transmission into drive and punched it, trying my best to lean to the right as I sped toward where I thought Vine street might be.
It wasn't hard to find. Flashing multi-colored lights ricocheted off trees and houses like beacons, casting a rainbow of strobes on the billowing tower of smoke hovering above the rundown neighborhood in question. From the look of the ash-gray smoke, I guessed the fire was for the most part, out. Which meant no flames for the viewfinder - the image of choice when responding to a blaze. Still, I knew there'd be plenty to capture on tape, and as I limped along the darkened, narrow streets on my half-flat tire - the sight of hastily-parked fire trucks and neighbors in housecoats told me the story was far from over.
Not wanting to block any emergency vehicles, I parked out of the way on a side street and grabbed my gear out of the back. Up ahead, yellow crime tape blocked the entrance to the 400 block of Vine street. Beyond that flimsy barricade, a massive fire engine blocked most of the view down the pitch-black street. Yellow, red and blue lights from a dozen dashboards hurled flashes and shadows at every directions, making the cloudy, smoky night all the harder to see in. But seeing was precisely what I'd come to do, and as I clicked my camera up onto the tripod head, I wondered how many of these late-night numbers I've been to before.
With the flick of a switch my camera's viewfinder erupted in blue-light. I twisted a wide shot into focus, with another finger I pulled the iris all the way open, searching for any available light. Slowly panning from right to left - I poised a thumb over the record button. Not to much to work with. From my vantage point at the crime tape I could only see the front corner of the house. Only a fraction of the aging home's front porch was even visible, it's charred exterior lit up every couple of seconds by the crazy dance of the strobes. To the left of the front door a giant jagged hole in the wall revealed an orange glow from within. I rolled tape and focused, stayed with the image for ten seconds before moving on to another shot.
When I did, a firefighter inside walked past the hole in the wall - creating a silhouette of the classic helmeted hero, back lit by orange. Jerking the tripod's smooth fluid-head, I trained the lens back on the hole, checked the 'Record' light and waited. A few seconds later the fireman form returned and paused in the middle of the vaguely fiery hole. As if on cue, the silhouette pointed a hose upward. When he lay on the nozzle the blast of water brought down thin smoldering planks from above. I'd bagged my first shot.
After only a few minutes of casually leaning into my battered tripod position, I gathered more than a dozen shots on tape. Wide - medium - tights, at ten to twenty seconds a pop. Brief video/audio recordings of firefighters and hoses and trucks and houses and water and smoke. Nothing I hadn't documented a hundred times before; but in doing so again I knew I'd please my bosses and gather more fodder for the machine. Where that leaves me is a question I often wrestle with. But this is a story about a house fire isn't it?
Certainly, shooting a fire at night isn't brain surgery, or even dental science for that matter. In fact, it takes about as much skill as driving a golf cart. The secret is in the timing. If you do happen to capture footage of a fully-engulfed structure fire, then credit your assignment desk more than yourself. Nine times out of ten you're left mopping up images at the corner. But I've learned that stories like these are more about people than flames, so I turned around and got shots of a few dazed spectators huddling at the bus stop sign. Something in the way they craned their necks past me made me turn back around, and as I did, I saw a crowd of people in dirty pajamas walking straight towards me. Trying to be casual I glanced at my glowing-blue viewfinder to make sure I was getting the shot. As they slowly filed past, none tried to make eye-contact with me. Instead, they treaded by clutching blankets and looking at the ground. They appeared more annoyed than anything else. I knew how they felt.
After the interrupted-sleepers walked out of sight a few weary-looking firefighters followed in their path. I scanned their sooty helmet nameplates for monikers I knew, but came up short. As the last member of the sweaty group passed my camera, he eyed me with a professional deadpan squint.
"Captain Lynch is lookin' for ya."
"Pree-shate it ", I countered -- not knowing who Captain Lynch was or how he knew I'd be here.
Refocusing my attention on the smoldering home a block away, I stared at a few firemen-shaped shadows in the front lawn of 403 Vine Street. They all kept glancing downward, motioning to something at their feet. But the slope of a neighbor's fence blocked whatever was at their heavily-booted feet.About that time I noticed a familiar diminutive fire-fighter form approach from the darkness. No more than five-foot two, this helmeted-hero had curly blonde hair bounding underneath. You might mistake the fire department's Public Information Officer as a perky soccer Mom, were it not for her turn-out gear.
"Denita! How you been?"
"Oh, you know -- we're busy as always in High Pockets ", she said with her customary twinkle.
"I hear ya. ". I muttered as I fished a wireless microphone out of my overstuffed fanny-pack. Denita took it and without a word attached it to the thick lapel of her fire coat.
"Oh yeah " I remembered, "Who's Captain Lynch? "
"ME, silly" - she beamed and held her hand out to show me a sparkling new wedding ring.
"Hey, congratulations. I've been hitched 14 years myself."
Denita and I stood there by the crime tape, chatting pleasantly, as grim-faced residents folded their arms and turned back for home. EMT's and police officers milled about outside their vehicles and gossiped. Some of the firefighters huddled under a tree branch- cocking back their helmets and taking grateful sips from paper cups. A half-block away, the clock in my news unit glowed 3:15, as air slowly seeped from my left-front tire. Business as usual at the news factory - another day at the office, but far away from any cubicle.
"All right, you good? " Denita asked, as I checked her picture in the one-inch screen jutting off the side of my camera. The red glow of the tally light inside told me I
"Yeah...what we got here Captain Lynch? "
All pleasantries left Denita's face as she he ran down the facts.
"At ten past two o clock we received a report of an involved structure at 403 Vine Street - we also had witnesses reporting people were jumping from the second floor. Units arrived to find eight residents outside the home. There was one fatality..."
The fact that someone died inside the house on Vine Street was news to me - and would soon be news to the entire Piedmont. As tragic as this new development was however, it didn't exactly fill me with sadness. I've been at this too long for that. But something inside me did grimace and I tried to remember that somewhere, someone would reel in agony at the information I now possessed. But the thought was truly only a flicker, and I asked a few more on-camera questions without missing a beat. When the newly-wed Captain Lynch divulged her minimum of details, I stopped the tape inside my camera and took the lapel microphone off her coat.
When Denita saw that I had stopped rolling, she locked gazes with me and said quietly,
"FYI, victim was a twelve year old handicapped boy".
"Really? Mmm...that sucks." I offered feebly.
The new detail sunk in and made me feel lousy on some distant level. But closer to the surface, I thought of how the station I worked for would soon trumpet the details of a young boy's horrible death as the lead story of the early-morning newscast. Bleary-eyed overnight editors would cull the most dramatic images from my shoot tape - the fiery hole in the wall - the firemen looking down at an unseen body, the dazed-eyed parade of pajama-clad relatives walking straight for the camera.At five o'clock sharp Channel 10 on your cable dial would awake from it's slumber of nocturnal infomercials and begin blaring the tragedy for all of central North Carolina and beyond to wake up to. Housewives would lean into their sets and shake their heads over their morning coffee. People getting ready for work would catch a few details and hash out opinion and theories around the copier at the office. Some school nearby would call for grief counselors and by nightfall, some child would ask his uneasy parents why his classmate had to die.
For now though, the news was in the hands of a select few, and I counted myself a little cursed to be one of them - especially since I was about to shout it from the rooftops. As Denita turned to answer a print photographer's question, I broke down my tripod and carried my gear back to my Explorer with the now entirely-flat front-left tire. With a familiar sigh, I stashed the recording equipment in the back and rooted around for the jack and spare. For a second I cursed my own rotten luck, but then felt worse considering a twelve year old handicapped boy lay dead under a sheet a half block away. I'd already hit speed dial by the time my cell phone made it up to my ear.
"Felicia, Hi. You may wanna rethink your morning live shots. This is a fatal - a 12 year old..."
Eight hours later I returned to Vine Street. The fire trucks were gone - replaced now by live trucks from four stations, their fifty foot masts still fully extended from their noon live shots. As I piloted my shiny new left-front tire up the street, I spotted who I was looking for. My buddy Matt saw my car, and stepped away from the pack of reporters and photogs and leaned on my door.
"Stew - what brings you to the rodeo? Shouldn't you be covering some band camp?"
"Cute - who do ya think got you all your overnight stuff? Got time for some Mexican?"
"Naaah, we'd better not." He looked over his shoulder at the pack of fellow media jackals across the street. "Channel 12 got the family to talk. The suits just saw it
and now they're losin' their shit. Tara's gettin' yipped at right now."
He motioned over to our newest co-worker, a tall attractive woman in a sharply pressed burgundy pant suit standing in the distance. When she saw me, she smiled and rolled her eyes at the cell phone in her ear.
'Business as usual', I thought as I steered my news unit off Vine street. ‘Business as usual.’