The day started entirely
too early to be a nice, peaceful Sunday.
Shortly before dawn on December 9, my department was paged out for a possible
house fire. The home was on a sparsely populated street and didn't have any
house numbers posted. We searched without any luck for the obvious signs
of trouble -- flames, smoke or people screaming in the street. Finally, the
homeowners called back to say that they could see the engines outside but
they didn't need us after all. We stopped in to investigate and found that
a candle had started a small fire that they'd put out without much problem.
Back home, I read a few sections of the newspaper as the sun began to slip
up on the horizon. I decided that it wasn't time for me to start my day just
yet and curled up under a blanket on the den sofa. I hadn't been asleep but
for an hour or so when we were paged out again. This time it was a false
fire alarm activation and we were told our services weren't needed before
I could get my shoes on and get out the door.
Call it an old wives tale if you wish, but things do come in threes. I've
always been told that and since joining the fire service, I 've always believed
it. With two calls early the in day, I knew a third couldn't be far off.
By the time the false alarm call had come in, my mother was awake and getting
ready for church. I decided not to join her and chose to crawl back under
the warm blanket on the couch to sleep until she came home with lunch. I
quickly fell into a deep sleep... A very deep sleep. So deep, in fact, that
I didn't hear it when my department's tones came across my pager. It was
so deep that I didn't hear the high-pitched beeping of the pager that follows
the tones. But hearing the words "plane crash" come across the radio... Well...
That did the trick.
* * * * * *
I think I only made
it to one plane crash as a newspaper photographer and it could've easily
been classified as a "non event." It was more along the lines of a crash
landing, but only because the pilot landed in a field and not at an airstrip
-- both the plane and the pilot survived. I think I had that incident in
my mind as I gathered my stuff and headed out the door on December 9. My
immediate reaction was that the call was not going to be a big deal.
I was monitoring the police radio frequency on my way to the scene. The first
patrol car that arrived found the wreckage of the small private plane blocking
both lanes of a two-lane highway. The officer reported heavy fire and smoke
conditions and that he had one confirmed victim and another missing.
Suddenly, the call jumped over into the "big deal" category.
Paramedics on the left shoulder of the road were tending to a male victim
with extensive burns as I arrived on scene. I didn't pay much attention to
them as my focus was on the smoking wreckage that stood right in front of
me. I knew from the radio traffic, however, that the man was the pilot and
it was his wife who was missing.
The wreckage could have been anything, really. The tail section was the only
thing spared from fire and the only immediate clue as to what exactly was
sitting in the middle of the highway. I checked in and walked up to the two
firefighters on the hose line to see what needed to be done. I found out
there wasn't much to do. The fire was almost out. The pilot was being treated.
And as the wind shifted and blew smoke away from me, I got a clear view of
the pieces of the plane... and the wife's body.
* * * * * *
About a year or so
before, our department worked a triple-fatality head-on collision. One of
the vehicles in that wreck caught fire and the body of the driver, who was
most likely deceased, was burned pretty badly.
The wreck happened late on a Thursday night and I was off at school, so I
missed the call. To be honest, I had mixed emotions about it, too. I talked
to some of the guys that had never dealt with a fire death before. I could
see that it bothered some of them -- and rightly so.
On one hand, I was thankful that I didn't have to be a part of it and didn't
have to carry the memories of it around with me. On the other hand, however,
I knew that dealing with such a situation wasn't a matter of if -- but of
when. I knew that I would have to encounter the ugliness of such a scene
sooner or later... And I wondered if getting it over and behind me wouldn't
have been best.
* * * * * *
The wife's body was
The moment I saw it, I felt a familiar knot form in my stomach.
That knot is the physical reaction I have to seeing death on the job. I've
felt it in my work as a firefighter and as a photographer. In both situations,
I know that I can't be overwealmed with sympathy for the victim... And I
think that knot is the way my body reminds me to have some appreciation for
the life or lives lost. Evidently, it works... because I do.
What made December 9 strange is that the knot didn't stick around. It was
gone almost as soon as it appeared. I know I felt sorry for the victims because
I like to think that I'm a compassionate guy... But seeing death that day
didn't seem to bother me. I did my job and went on with my life.
Of course, this is Fletch you talking to. I can't leave well enough alone.
It's just not my style. When I wasn't distracted by my own house catching
fire later that week (don't think I haven't entertained the idea of that
being punishment for lack of adequate compassion), it started to bother me
that I wasn't bothered. (Gee, I hope that made sense.)
If seeing what I saw had troubled me greatly, I would have thought about
it entirely too much. So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that when it didn't
seem to trouble me, I decided to overanalyze that angle instead.
In typical Fletch fashion, all of the thinking I dedicated to the
matter yielded few solid explanations.
* * * * * *
One of the firefighters
had gotten an old photo of the couple from the medics that worked the crash.
He brought it into the station one day and passed it around. I'd never seen
those people before. They couldn't have been the same couple we saw on December
9. They were so happy... And alive...
* * * * * *
For some reason, my
mind has dwelled on my own mortality from time to time through the course
of this semester. Life has seemed a bit more precious... and a great deal
shorter. When my thinking gets a bit dark, thoughts about December 9 do creep
in. I think about how that couple woke up on a Sunday morning and had their
entire lives ahead of them... and how they didn't know their entire life
consisted of only a few hours. Oddly enough, when I have those thoughts,
they're always about the people in the photograph -- never about the people
as we saw them on the scene.
One morning earlier this semester, I was in the middle of a dream about December
9. My alarm clock sounded and interrupted it. I quickly reset the clock in
an attempt to "get back into the dream" if possible. I didn't stop to write
down what I'd dreat about so far and, as you can imagine, I couldn't remember
a thing when I woke up for the second alarm. Maybe that's a good thing. For
some reason, I don't think it was a happy dream. Certainly, not remembering
it gives me one less thing to think about.
I do know that every time I've sat down to write this year, I've wanted to
tell you the story of that day. At first, it was so I could work out the
confusion about thoughts and feelings and emotions that I was mixed up about.
Then it was because I thought I could shape it into a really good story.
Now, it's written because I'm tired of thinking about it when I sit down
It wasn't long after the crash that life came in and took my mind off of
it all. My house caught fire. I turned 24. We celebrated Christmas. We rang
in the new year. School started. Other fires and rescues replaced the crash
in the part of my mind dedicated to such things. I'm hoping this entry closes
the book on it for a while. If there's one lesson I should have learned from
writing in this journal, it's that thinking about one thing too much can
drive you mad. I think it's going to be nice to file this one away in my
brain for a while... It's where it belongs.