All lives matter

Today, I was in Franklin photographing an assignment in front of the courthouse. It was raining and I was getting soaked. I don’t notice this much as I am shooting pictures. I try to be very conscious of the front of my lens but, other than that, it’s not much different than when it’s dry. That is until I’m done.

I was getting in my car pretty wet and noticed how my pant legs were just soaked from when I knelt down to shoot a picture (Michael Williamson would be proud!) I thought “man, this is gonna be a long damp day for me.”

As I was feeling sorry of myself, I took a moment and checked my phone. Apparently, it was blowing up in my pocket. Texts and missed phone calls.

“Bad fire in Reno if you can get there!” was a text from my editor Mark Oliver. The 2 missed calls were also from him.

I called him immediately. He told me that it sounded really bad and that there might be people trapped in the house.

Internally, I said the F-word. I hate having to cover tragedies and I hate that tragedies even happen. I feel completely inept at dealing with such things on a professional and personal level.

Externally, I said I’m on my way and asked if a reporter was being sent as well. A reporter being there means I can concentrate more on being where I need to be to make pictures and less on trying to round up information as well, though I do that instinctively.

So, the 5-7 minutes I had to drive to where this fire was, I has getting myself prepared for covering the worst. There is no time long enough to prepare you for covering a death.

I parked far enough away to be clearly out of the way. The last thing I ever want is to be in the way when important people are trying to do their job saving others, saving property and stopping a bad situation from being even worse.

I began to walk towards the fire.

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I heard a voice and it was my colleague Sally Bell, who was already on scene with our new reporter Will Stevens. I asked what they knew and if there was anyone still in the house. My heart was still in my throat. I know how important it is for us to cover these fires and tragedies, but it doesn’t make it easier. I tell myself if a picture I take at these tragedies makes people check the batteries in their smoke detectors or go over escape routes with their children in case of a fire or replace old extension cords or space heaters etc., then it’s worth my time and discomfort. But, it’s still hard to be there, seemingly like a vulture looking for pictures when there are real stories of heroism and bravery being played out in front of me.

“Everyone is out! Everyone is safe,” I was told. I was also told “not sure about the pets.”

Though it made me feel better that the people were all out, I was still concerned about the pets. Pets are family. Pets mean something deeply to the family.

I went about looking for photos to tell about the fire, knowing the people were out and safe, and about the firefighter’s work.

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What I think is taken for granted is just how hard fighting fires really is. Most fire department personnel are volunteers. They do it because it’s their community and they want to keep it safe. They risk their lives to save other people’s property and to keep matters from getting much worse. I am not a firefighter, but I think someone rushing into a burning building to put out fire, with temperatures that burn your skin from several feet away, and search for lives to save while putting out the fire has got to be the most exhausting job there is. They say the hardest 6 minutes in sports is on the wrestling mat. I would think this is even harder than that, and that is just the physical part. If they find a person in there, I can’t even imagine the emotional toll.

Now, before I get to the next part of this story, let me preface this a bit.

When I took over for Jerry Sowden just a little more than two years ago, one of my first assignments was covering St. Paddy’s day where I happened to meet Dennis Alcorn and others from the Oil City Fire Department. I immediately liked Dennis because he was funny but also no nonsense. I told him to just call me the new Jerry and we’d be fine.

He told me if I put his picture in the paper he would, the next time I was at a fire scene, soak me with the hose. He told me he got Jerry before.

To this day, I don’t know if he was kidding, but, in the next part of this story, you will see why I will be concerned at the next fire I respond to that Dennis is working.


To a firefighter, life is life.

Say that again. Life is life!

Sure, humans take priority, but Dennis was inside this home putting out flames when he saw a dog and realized it was still alive.

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Now, he might not have had time to truly process the significance of his next actions, but he picked up this member of someone’s family, took it outside and found a way to get oxygen into its smoke-filled lungs. The dog’s body appeared lifeless but Alcorn and Beverly Marvin began to give it oxygen as if it were a child. They were focused and determined not to let this dog die. This animal was someone’s family.

I watched them work on this dog for about 10 minutes when the pup suddenly seemed to become aware that there were strangers around – lethargic, but beginning to breathe on its own.

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The fire was now under control with firefighters checking hot spots and trying to make sure it wouldn’t rekindle later. Others came to help and brought water. Daryl Scott poured water into his hand for the dog to lap up. The dog was just in survival mode. The smoke inhalation made it weak, tired and very lethargic, but it licked the water and took in the oxygen. Alcorn and Marvin still focused on saving the it.

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As the dog began to appear more aware, the firefighters and EMT took a few seconds to breathe themselves and, with the help of her daughter Brittany, Marvin hydrated while still giving oxygen.

One thing then happened that I missed with my camera. I kick myself for not being prepared because it was a moment between people who know the effort that goes into not only fighting a fire, but saving a life. Alcorn and Scott fist bumped and said “good job.”  These guys fight fires all the time and it is their job, unlike the volunteers, they do get paid to do it, but that doesn’t change their dedication to life or the dangers they face. They are paid because they cover heavily concentrated areas of housing and population and it’s necessary to have staff dedicated 24/7 to ensure quick responses. This fire today was outside Oil City limits, yet, they were there because there was a need – a need to risk their lives in order to use their trained expertise to save someone else’s property and family.

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I can’t speak for this dog or its family, but I can speak for someone who has had pets who mean more than anything else. I have great respect for what they did today.

Also, please read tomorrow’s story in the paper. What I didn’t witness, or even know about until later, was how neighbors saved a woman who was inside the burning house. The report told of thick smoke billowing out but a neighbor managed to pull the woman through the window, saving her life.

Today was a day of people to look up to.

And, Dennis, if this means you’re going to soak me with a fire hose next time I’m covering a fire you’re at, so be it.

Good job to you and all the firefighters and EMTs out there today. It was truly a sad thing to cover, but I was proud of you all for the work you did. I hope the family is okay and can find a way to move on passed this and I’m so sorry for the pets that did not make it. And I hope this little dog in the pictures does make it and recovers. Smoke is a powerfully dangerous thing.

(Note: I know others at this scene had perhaps similar stories. Brittany, for example, said Noel Bartlett handed a cat to her that she then helped, despite the scared cat clawing into her. I’m sure there are more stories to tell, this just happened to be the one I witnessed.)