Revisiting a historic fire in Berwick Maine
A PHOTOGRAPHER'S PERSPECTIVE
On August 28th, 2016, the tone went off sometime around 4am while we were in a dead sleep...
I was standing stunned in our hallway in my pajamas when I actually woke up. I really woke up when my husband flew by me and said "You're too slow, drive yourself"... and off he went out the door. As I heard the roar of his engine breaking the nighttime silence, it dawned on me that dispatch had given an address right down the street and she had said "structure fire" and "entrapment" .... a fairly loud "holy fuck" slipped out of my mouth. It sounded like someone else spoke as my voice echoed in the quiet house. I frantically looked for shoes, keys and the camera go-bag. On my way out the door I heard someone call dispatch and confirm an immediate second alarm and entrapment. "Stay calm." I said, out loud, to no one.
The shaking hands always start quickly for me, usually before my brain even begins to process that something intense is happening. I instantly have to force myself to think harder than normal and remember to breath slowly and not let the adrenaline wear me down the first five minutes.
The first (and second and third) time I responded with the fire department as a photographer, my hands shook so badly I couldn't take a good photo. I was getting better at controlling myself with training and practice and now I regularly repeat to myself: "do your job, do your job, don't think to hard, do your job"
....I am still very inexperienced at this over two years in.
When I came around the corner less than 25 seconds after I heard the second alarm called and I was leaving the house, I could hear the windy roar and crackling of the fire and then see the orange glow surrounding the neighborhood.... and a woman screaming in distress. I hit the video button on my camera because my hands were still shaking too much to shoot a photo...and I took care to stay far from the distressed residents because I'm tracking fire and firefighters, not the people having their worst day.
WARNING: BELOW IS RAW VIDEO FOOTAGE OF A REAL HOUSE FIRE AND MAY BE UPSETTING TO SOME VIEWERS
After a few short videos, I took a deep breath or two and started shooting stills.
I will always continue to be amazed at how calm the firefighters remain during such an epic crisis. I watch as they meticulously perform with precision and thought. They walk, they don't run. Sometimes they walk REALLY fast, but it's still a meticulous and conscious decision always.
I have run onto scenes or out my door twice when I should have walked... both times, I have ungracefully fallen.
Once, in my driveway and almost broke my elbow. The second time was in front of two New Hampshire Police Officers, who asked if I was okay (while chuckling under their breath as my gear splattered all over the road) ....I said "My pride is destroyed." and I walked off wondering if they were going to watch the replay from their dash cam later.
Gear up in 20 seconds, put on breathing mask, unload hose, hook it up, know where each and every tool is and how to use it
...I am envious of their training and ability to stay calm...goals.
know where the other firefighters are.... know where the residents of the building are...ignore the people yelling yet listen to what they are saying...
...I can learn from them and apply it to my image work
trust your training, listen to command, use good judgement, don't fall, don't die, save living things, respect everyone and everything around you
The intense heat was nearly unbearable even far across the street and at a safe distance away and the scene was getting more chaotic and distracting.
Once I begin to shoot I am only aware of light, shadow, shapes and colors, in fact, I was so focused on proper settings and light, I pretty much missed the moment of rescue...
My husband said that it was understandable that I "went moth".
A woman came running over to me and grabbed my arm... "They got him! They got him out!" .... I turned and shot a spit second without changing the manual settings on my camera while I was running (ahem, "fast walking"). Of course, this is not a great couple of photographs.....
but much of what I shot that morning was not technically "great"
Firefighters Thomas (husband) and Leary (friend) broke a door down on the right side of the building and rescued a man and his cat from the second story of the home seconds before his apartment was overtaken by the fire.
It certainly WAS an award winning moment for the Firefighters and for the Fire Department.
I took photographs for the entire morning and stayed on scene for about 7 hours.
At least one hour out of that seven was spent blocking the road and redirecting traffic with a neighbor because of the morning commuters that were flying around the corner in a hurry to try to go around the scene. Several cars came speeding onto the scene nearly hitting onlookers, firefighters, and other cars that were turning around in the middle of the road...I finally took a stand and put the camera down and threw on a reflective vest and walked to the end of the road and stood in it to tell cars the proper route to take. This was a duty neighbor Andy and I were happy to take on until a Police unit was free to assist, I felt helpful, and I wanted to prevent any additional trauma to the neighborhood.
I'm always surprised at how many people are rude about being inconvenienced during someone else's worst day.
I shot 368 raw files with a very worn out Nikon D90....of which, about 160 were solid images in my eyes (not blurry, pixelated or bad exposure) and only about 30 images were impressive enough for print after editing. Now that I have learned more about editing a year later, I crave a revisit with the raw files and vow to re-edit soon.
Shooting on a moment notice in manual, at night... and being self taught is fraught with the difficulties of changing light and constant movement as well as remembering to always stay out of their way so they can do their jobs...in addition to worrying about camera settings, a scene like this can feel completely hectic and distracting....and I am of course concerned about offending the folks that are suffering through this trauma, the last thing they need is a camera in their face, or a flash going off....and the last thing the firefighters need is a photographer with a broken ankle or head bump that needs attention.
As Firefighters from around the Seacoast began to arrive by the truckload (i believe it was 17 departments that responded) the flames died down and it quickly became exceptionally dark and eerie. The sounds of the large pumps and truck engines suddenly stood out over anything else.
The Chief in command of the scene was raising his voice to be heard over the trucks, strategically giving orders and attacking this building as if it were his worst enemy. It was impressive.
A woman was crying because her pets were lost in the fire.
I tripped over a hose while I was shooting this image of a Dover New Hampshire Firefighter operating a ladder truck, I was rushing to capture those lights and this angle.
..I forgot to check my histogram and ISO....
The Firefighters were starting to get worn down by hour three or four. I still can't believe they still worked for another 7 or 8 hours after that.
As the sun began to come up and the overhaul of the building started, a fresh round of firefighters came in to allow a second or two of rest for the local crews. The sun was illuminating the extensive damage and showing the true might of the flames. More cars were piling up and around the scene, press had arrived. Word was getting out that the fire started from a puppy knocking over a candle. Crews spent hours putting out hot spots, breaking open walls and ceilings with hidden smoldering ashes and searching for missing pets. They comforting residents, answered questions and of course, they watched each others backs. Even after the fire is seemingly out, climbing on a roof, or inside a house that has just been consumed by flames can become another tragedy in an instant. Firefighters are not in a safe zone until they are home in their own beds...and then home and rest becomes the likely place where they will revisit anything and everything they have seen or gone through that day.
Many of the Firefighters even have to show up to work another job at 8 or 9 that morning.
This particular scene required Firefighters to respectfully remove deceased animals in front of the people that loved them dearly.... that's when I took my second break because it was too difficult to witness.
When I am on a scene, locals will approach me to ask me questions...
I'm just guessing that a short nerdy woman with a camera is more approachable that a big masked man with an axe and a large amount of friends. I never answer because I truly don't want to be considered an expert of a scene, nor do I want to deal in misinformation or the gossip that runs rampant.
Most of the time I will ignore, shrug, tell them I don't know or tell them what I do.... which is simple ...
I create images. I am simply an observer, or a recorder.
I can tell you what I observe.. that Firefighters do a job I never want to do, and thus I will continue to be fascinated.
One man came on this scene and told me I was "extremely rude to photograph a miserable moment"
"I do it for the firefighters."
"oh." he said. "I guess that's alright then."
Firefighters are now packing up tools 5 hours later and starting to relax before the next tone goes off.
I am not interested in chasing misery, loss, destruction and terror...
I am passionate about the people that are willing to rescue us from those very things.
I know for sure while following my own passion of creating images and art, I will stumble and fall a few more times and make more mistakes.
I am comforted knowing that someone is willing to do the uneasy job of having my back...and that helps me to... stay calm.
PHOTOGRAPHS & WRITTEN BY: ERIN THOMAS @2016-2018
repost from 2017 "Revisiting a Historic Fire One Year Later"
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