Sunday, June 27, 2010

news clips: heroes

The word hero seems to get a lot of extra mileage these days - I'm not certain of what to make of it.

When I was quite young it seemed to be a term reserved almost exclusively for the likes of Audy Murphy, or Desmond Doss, the World War ll army medic who carried or dragged 75 wounded fellow soldiers back from the front lines and to safety, miraculously dodging hours of Japanese bullets and hand grenades. Doss himself refused to carry a weapon.

Nowadays it appears that
occasionally even something as cozy as a fat donation to a local charity will win someone that same title. While I respect the privilege of folks in free country to dole out such distinctions as they personally see fit, I feel it's a bit overused. A devotion to one's community, for instance, while an important and admirable thing, does not necessarily qualify as heroic. My personal definition of a hero would be of one who displays courage or genuine bravery, and in in doing so violates his or her own safety in performing an act that will, or ultimately will, save lives.

I have never served in the armed forces, but I've met a hero or two, and photographed several, I'm honored to say. Many insisted they themselves were not heroes, however great their sacrifice or deeds. Instead they contend "I'm not a hero, but I have stood beside heroes", such is their humility.

It was a quiet Saturday morning and I'd been hanging out in the newspapers darkroom (as was my beat on that particular weekend), when I responding to a situation that the police scanner labeled as "a fully-involved structure fire". I gunned my engine and raced towards a small, dead-end street in South Tacoma so short I had a hard time spotting it in my Thomas Guide. Only few minutes later on this same trajectory, I would find myself standing beside some real-life heroes, one of which turned out to be the bravest person I'd even seen. He was only ten, and would forever remain so.

A good-sized battery of Police, Fire and Rescue units had already converged at the scene, the street now cordoned off. A woman police officer stood poised in middle of the adjacent main arterial, directing traffic by hand, stopping or diverting traffic, so I parked down the street. Leaping out with my camera, I hoofed it in as close as I dared into to the area. My caution was needless - the scene was chaos, everyone too busy to notice, and too busy to care to notice.

What events that follow must now be only by my best recollection, as no records appear to survive of that fire in any official archive (procedure requires that they be kept for ten years only), despite my attempts at rooting out exact details. Reporters, other photographers and even the Fire Marshal himself who conducted the subsequent formal investigation, report that they recollect the incident only in the broadest strokes. Six Feared Dead in House Fire.

That I myself am certain it occurred in 1989 is purely because my own son was also ten years old at the time, a corresponding fact that was preeminent to me then, and is still.

What did happen was this: I aimed my camera and fired off shots of the house itself - no flames were showing, but smoke was funneling out of the roof and windows, puffs that took the shape of rusty mushroom clouds. Then something else - simultaneously - caught my eye, something happening back out in the middle of that cordoned-off street. I glanced back, but firefighters were rushing past me, back and forth to and from their rescue units and pumper trucks, faster than I could keep track of. I moved up closer yet and saw it the same instant he emerged: a firefighter stepped from the front porch, carrying what looked like a three or four year old child, his or her pajamas and face covered with soot. When he'd gotten far enough from the house, he placed his bundle down onto the grass. Shit. Then, behind me: again I spun around to the commotion I'd heard coming from the street moments before. Somebody, a woman maybe, screaming and crying.

Back over there an adjacent drama had been unfolding: traffic was at a standstill, with shocked and curious faces pouring in from every direction, both in cars and on foot. One driver of an older-model sedan (a woman) was stopped dead-center in the street, clearly having been forbidden to move any closer, and was reacting
in hysterics to what she was seeing happening a few yards away. In the next moment the woman had leaned out her window, and now at her side next to the car, the traffic officer had taken her her hand to offer what little comfort she was able. She was looking past me as well, towards the nightmare-in-motion, spilling out across the house and small yard to my back.

The racket, radios and pumper trunks made it next-to impossible to decipher exactly what the woman driver was screaming, but pointing my longest lens towards her, it seemed to be this: "My children!", over and over. This was the mother, trapped outside the police barricade while smoke and fate unfurled. She cried out again, reaching almost her entire body out through her driver's side window, then suddenly pulled her hands back to her mouth, in terror of what she was seeing.

I craned my neck back at the house and recognized her alarm: another firefighter brought yet another child out of the house, and lowered it - limp - to the lawn.

I spun my eyes back and forth, from the street to the yard to the firefighters, then back to the street, not knowing where I should concentrate with my camera. I stood and took a last look back at the mother - trapped in a whirlpool of unimaginable panic - then opted to move again towards the house. I brushed the shoulder of a firefighter, took a startled step backward, and then understood the harbinger of her last screams. Three feet from me, cradled in the arms of a fireman moving in slow motion, was a boy, who appeared to be about ten years old. Used to framing and shooting in an instant and on pure instinct, I froze and watched. The blond haired boy was draped across the firefighters arms, his feet bare, wearing only a pair of white briefs. Eyes closed as if in sleep, his face - pale and white - was covered with thick soot except for smears where the firefighter had administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Looking on, the rescue attempt offered no clue as to success or failure. I remained still.

As news photographers, we're trained from our inception to capture not just telling and dramatic and moments, but the moment. It is most often the case that we chase them, but are alluded - they are too quick, too far, too fleeting.

But on this pale morning, at this scene, the moment hung motionless before me as of it were a finished painting, and I did not act. The firefighter neither had implored me not to shoot, nor did he so much as look up, or even in my direction. Standing outside
the open doors of a rescue unit, I'm not sure he knew I standing right there next to them. He was working.

I raised my camera, and then lowered it. I had only one thought, and for me it was an unexpected reaction. A single word filled my mind, gave me pause: disrespectful.

moment passed.

In doing so, things suddenly burst back to life in every direction, police and firefighters shouting, then running, myself running as well. When I returned to the newspaper later that morning I had many photos: the house, the smoke, the scene in the yard, even the frantic rush when two surviving infants were moved from the house to a waiting rescue vehicle. But the only pictures of heroes hiding in my camera were those of the firefighters, and police officers, and paramedics themselves, doing what they do.

Six Feared Dead in House Fire.

Incredibly, there were eight children in that house that early morning, with parents away. Five were declared dead at the scene, as it is referred, the event being a tragedy of scope shocking enough that it appeared in papers across the country.

As the day drew on, the next wallop came when the events of that morning were re-constructed and it was learned that the ten-year-old boy had, in fact, been the first child out of the house, uninjured. Calling upward to his brothers and sisters in the second story and unable to stir any of them to flee, he chose to re-enter the burning home to rescue them.

I once recounted this experience to a classroom of high school journalism students, exactly as I've outlined it here, then asked them what they'd do. The to explain to me what they thought would be the right thing do, and then to justify their reasons. Perhaps predictably, the majority of them indicated they would have acted just as I had, at they very least insisting that sparing the family the pain of that (uncaptured) image was the more noble deed.

Then I provided them with the wrinkle, the real wrinkle. It was a final twist that reporters did not learn until the next day, when fire crews were sweeping up, and had conducted a thorough search of the home. In it they discovered a fire alarm hanging from the ceiling, but one whose batteries had sometime earlier been removed, leaving it useless.

That dramatic or shocking photos have a way of driving home a message was not lost on me, of all people. A photo of this weight could (and does) wake up its onlookers, perhaps hundreds, prompting them to rise out of their chairs and check their own fire alarms, averting possible similar tragedies.

Except that was not a photo I'd taken.

As a follow-up to the story several months later, I accompanied a reporter to a nursing facility where the ten year old boy in question still lingered, unconscious, suspended by tubes and artificial airways that could furnish him a heart rate, but not a life. In a few weeks that too would vanish.

So. A newsroom can be a peculiar place, often at odds with the same conventions of the society towhich it also claims stewardship. An environment both extroverted and insular, it is one of generosity, but just as easily one where otherwise cruel and self-serving acts are praised and even rewarded. Humility, pity and remorse exist so at their own risk. But flourish, nonetheless.

It is at this difficult bridge - between the facts, the hard-headed and the hard-of-heart - that this story finally arrives. There is no correct answer lurking here, at least not by my own estimation.

My personal conclusion is, as decision makers, we are deeply flawed, which allows us only the most human of choices. I will also add this: that the older I get, the easier I am persuaded to believe that old aphorism that speaks to our flaws as being some of our most redeeming and compelling features.

There is also that rare and amazing force, built of bravery and self-sacrifice, the spark of which may indeed exist in all of us, but more in some, and in a rare few, infinitely so.

From it rushes forth our heroes, tall and small, and we are honored to have seen them. If only for a moment, even stolen.

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