My two-hour afternoon class was cancelled. And I took a three-hour nap.

I'd planned to head home early this afternoon. It's 8 p.m. and I'm still in Oakdale.

Bob Seager:
"Like A Rock"

Some peanut butter crackers this afternoon.

I think it's time I drive home.

26 April 2001


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Quote du jour:
"Even at our birth, death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks towards us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh." (Sir Francis Bacon)

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 burned badly.
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 to write.

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.

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