Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tragedy Strikes Across the Street

The scene out in front of my house Saturday morning. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

At 5:20 yesterday morning I was rustled awake by the sight of flashing lights dancing across the bedroom wall and the sound of men talking outside our house.

The weather forecast called for 3-4 inches of snow overnight so I figured it was just the snowplow crew taking a break before getting back to work. My wife wasn’t so sure; she hopped out of bed to take a look. Seconds later I heard her gasp, “Oh no!” from the other room.

At first I thought maybe one of the plows had smashed the living hell out of my car parked on the street, but it was much worse. The flashing lights weren’t coming from a snowplow at all, they were coming from fire trucks parked in front of our house - the neighbor’s house across the street was on fire.

The scene was so surreal that for many seconds all I could do was stare out our kitchen window in disbelief as firefighters turned our street, and part of our front lawn, into a makeshift command center.

There weren’t any visible signs of fire, but heavy smoke hung in the air transforming our entire neighborhood into a kind of giant horror movie set as silhouetted firefighters moved in and out of the haze carrying pickaxes, hoses and ladders.

It was hard to digest the information, especially at 5:20 in the a.m., but at some point, probably less than a minute or two after being awake, the photojournalist in me kicked in and I realized I probably ought to saunter outside in the cold and start making pictures.

My arrival on the scene fully equipped with camera gear via our front door took police at the scene completely by surprise. I’m sure they weren’t expecting any media coverage in such a small neighborhood, especially that early in the morning and from some guy who just walked out of the house from across the street. Without any police tape in place, the officer didn’t really know how to react to my sudden presence, nor could he tell me for sure where I could, or couldn’t be.

But there I was - in my own space really. The same street where my son and I play catch nearly every day of the summer. The same yard from where I’ve retrieved probably close to a million Wiffle balls over the years. Now it was the scene of a working fire, and for the first time in 26-years as a photojournalist, it really hit me. Not so much that a house in my neighborhood was burning down, but more the fact I didn’t really know who lived there despite the fact our front doors are less than 50-yards apart.

I asked the officer if everyone got out okay. He shook his head somberly and told me two occupants were pulled from the basement. I got a pit in my stomach. The word pulled is never a good one when you’re talking about the scene of a fire or an accident.

Exhausted firefighter exit our neighbor's house after getting the fire under control. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Just up the street two other people who lived in the house were wrapped in emergency blankets talking to officers. For the next 20 minutes I switched into autopilot and continued to photograph the scene. By this time the rest of the neighborhood was awake and congregating on the street. Most of them knew me, or of me, because of my career as a photographer at The Ann Arbor News and now at I knew a lot of them as well, but like the folks who lived in the burning house, there were plenty I didn't know.

When I finished shooting, I went back inside and started editing photos on my laptop at the kitchen table. My wife and three kids (who now also were awake) sat on the same table peering out of the window as the scene continued to unfold across the street.

Every now and then my wife would give me updates as I continued to edit photos. I told her what the officer had told me and the first thing my wife asked me was if I knew who had died.

Sadly, I had no idea.

Shortly after 6 a.m. I called my editor and told her I had pictures from a potential fatal fire in my neighborhood. Before the hour was over, she texted me to let me know that both the victims had been resuscitated by paramedics and both had a pulse by the time they arrived at the hospital.

The normal reaction to news like that is a sigh of relief before you go on about your business pretending everything will be okay and the victims will carry on with their lives as if nothing happened. But I didn’t feel relieved at all. A pulse means nothing, especially if they were without one for as little as five, four, or even two minutes. The damage, most likely, had already been done.

Oddly enough, for the rest of the day we continued on the best we could as if nothing had happened, pretending everything would be okay. But it wasn’t normal, and everything wasn't okay.

I took my daughter to softball practice at 10 a.m., weaving in and out of the fire trucks still parked on the street to get out of the neighborhood. Only when we got back, TV crews were on the scene interviewing my wife for the six o'clock news.

At 1:30, we took my son to his basketball game. He scored 13-points and even canned a half-court shot at the buzzer that sent the crowd into euphoria. When we got home, he and his friend played snow football in our front yard, only across the street investigators continued combing the scene of the fire. Police tape now encircled the block and the insurance disaster team also was on site boarding up all the house windows. The scene reminded me of a picture I once saw where kids were happily playing soccer in the middle of a war- torn street in Iraq.

There was a pall hanging over us the rest of the afternoon – a "flatness," my wife called it. It may have been suppressed for a while, but it never really went away. Any time we started feeling normal, the campfire smell that still hung in the air, or a glance out the kitchen window would quickly bring it back. Our normal activities we’re merely distractions between a trip to the store to buy new batteries for our smoke detectors and a sit-down session with the kids where we drew up a very detailed fire escape plan.

It was that strange kind of tug-of-war all day: Normal life vs. the "House-across-the-street-caught-fire-and-may-have-killed-two-of-your-neighbors" life. Cars came and went for much of the day, most stopping to gawk at the scene before slowly driving away. People came and went too, some were relatives of the house’s occupants, some just curious.

Later that afternoon, my wife found out from the mother of one of the house’s occupants, that one of the two people pulled from the basement had, in fact, died, the other had been life-flighted to Grand Rapids in critical condition.

I found out later the man who died was a 20-year-old musician. He was one of four young people who lived in the house, but I didn’t know any of them beyond the occasional wave, or “Hey, how’s it going?” on the street. If I saw any one of them in a crowd of people, I doubt I could pick them out.

I realize now that I don’t know a lot of my neighbors. Not like when I was a kid growing up in a small town where everyone knew everyone. If I wiped out on my bicycle in front of a neighbor’s house, they’d take me in, clean the blood off my scraped up knee, give me glass of lemonade and then call my mother. They had names like Bessie Green, Wilbur Best, Martha Ritz, and Colonel Hine. Sadly, I didn’t even know the name of my deceased neighbor until it was finally reported in the news. Things just aren't the same anymore, neither here in a transient town like Ann Arbor, nor in my old, small hometown in Ohio where the likes of Bessie Green, Wilbur Best and Colonel Hine are long dead and gone.

The morning after. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Last night I thought sleeping would be an issue - as it turns out, I was so exhausted I slept just fine. This morning the sun shines brightly on our neighborhood, the sky is bright blue and a fresh coating of snow clings to the tree branches. Visually, it’s a picture-perfect winter day. Later I will make my son’s birthday cake and he will open presents. We’ll try the best we can to return to normal as he celebrates his 11th year of life.

But it won’t be easy when the smell of smoke still hangs in the air; the victim’s cars still sit in the driveway, and their garbage cans still line the street - all reminders that no amount of sunshine, blue skies, or birthday cake can bring back a young man’s life or make the blackened, smoke-charred house across the street feel any less sobering.

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