Sometimes, you happen upon moments in other people’s lives, and those moments leave their mark. In the wee hours of a frozen New England February, amidst rivers of run off, thick with ash and charred roof tiles, someone’s home – a dozen someones’ homes were burning. My natural reaction was to experience it from behind my camera, capture the event as though looking through the lens would help me distance myself from it.
The smell of the smoke hit us from the nearby rotary long before we saw the flames. There were onlookers gathered in the nearby Walgreen’s and Dunkin Donuts parking lots, watching as the run off poured down the roadway past them. As we drew closer, the onlookers faces began to change. Amongst the snapping cell phone cameras and video takers, there were concerned faces, tear streaked and furrowed, standing across the way watching the “United 1887” sign across the tower’s front slowly being obscured by flame. These weren’t passersby, these were the people watching their home burn.
Every ounce of me wanted to reach out to them, to the man who carried only his pet in a cat carrier, to the woman who’d had to leave her cat inside, or the one curled on the sidewalk, crying out, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Yet, that part of me froze as I stood there watching the Lowell Firefighters hurry across the street to aim their water cannons at the blaze five stories up, aiming my camera, my own weapon against the flames.
First the “United 1887” sign disappeared, then the first heavy bricks fell to the sidewalk below where just a few moments earlier a fire fighter had walked past.
The cold of the February evening seemed to recoil as we drew closer to the building – this fire’s presence would be felt. More people approached, tenants who had been impossible to track down, just reaching home in time to watch the trauma unfold. They arrived in time to see the tower, the landmark of the Victorian building, cave and crumple to the ground. The cries as it fell could be heard all along Bridge Street.
They’d left everything inside, their medications, their belongings, what they thought of as their livelihoods – it was all inside. I wanted to comfort, console, tell them that things like this happen just before life unfolds its greatest joys, but I know most people don’t quite have my faith especially at times like these and that now, they most likely wouldn’t be able to hear me. I wanted to tell the weeping woman, “you’re alive,” but I gave her a wide berth and kept to myself, watching in awe and reverence. Despite it not being my home, not being my neighborhood, I felt as though I was supposed to be there at that moment, to see it unfold, respect its force and learn something from it. Yet, I walked away only wishing I had given my business card to the weeping woman, and told her if she needed anything at all, she could call and I would do everything in my power to help her get it. (If she ever, by some miracle, reads this, that offer still stands)
I walked away, moved, humbled…and grateful.