Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Photojournalist First

One minute you're sitting on the couch watching "Dancing With the Stars," and the next you're grabbing for anything you can get your hands on, hoping at least one item is a coat, as you flee from the burning structure where you live. Life happens quickly, and tragedy often happens quicker.

For the second time in less than a year, fire claimed an apartment building at the Hunt Club Apartments on 1111 Fox Hound Way near the intersection of Illinois and Hadley roads. I was watching TV when I heard the first wave of fire engine sirens buzz past my house as I live a few minutes west of the apartments. That's not unusual. But then came the second wave.

Although I work as a photographer and writer for the Sports desk at The News-Sentinel, I'm still a photojournalist first (well, I'm actually on vacation right now), so I turned on my police/fire scanner. When I heard the urgency in the voices on the fire operations channel, I decided to grab my gear and head out. I arrived at the scene to find the entire roof of a building on fire and a couple of ladder trucks battling the blaze. The burning building was situated directly across from the building that caught fire last summer.

In no way do I intend to make light of the situation, but it felt good to once again be in photojournalist mode. Don't get me wrong, I love shooting sports, and I'm starting to enjoy the writing more. But I do miss covering spot news from time to time. Well, that is until I have to deal with public information officers who would like me to believe that they are coralling me into one small section for my safety.

I do generally believe they are concerned for my safety. But honestly, if it was all about safety, the PIO's would move the hundreds of regular citizens who are standing within yards of the fire taking pictures with their own cameras and phones. If I'm standing in an unsafe zone, then surely the numerous onlookers are too. Is the fire department not concerned with their safety?

The reality is that I carry professional cameras and a press ID badge, and nobody wants to admit it, but fire and police PIO's do not want news media to see what they don't want us to see. Citizen journalists as they're called actually do have better access to emergency scenes than working news media. If they didn't already know me, I'd buy a smaller camera and just blend in. Enough ranting.

As I looked around the scene, I saw countless people crying, watching helplessly as everything they own burned. Other residents in surrounding buildings ran to get blankets for the evacuees as some were still wearing shorts and pajamas. I took pictures of them showing their emotions, and believe me, that is the really tough part of this job. I don't enjoy that part of it, but the story has to be told.

One girl on the scene with whom I talked said the fire started in the apartment behind her, and she was able to get out because she heard the fire alarms. She cried as she watched the destruction of her apartment unfold. The situation made me think, much as the countless car wreck scenes I've worked, as I headed back home. Although my wife and two sons were home sleeping soundly, I was concerned for their safety. I considered that it might be time to review escape plans with everyone and change the batteries in all of our smoke detector.

It's impossible to know when tragedy's going to strike. The best you can do is try to be prepared to deal with it when it does.

Check out the story by Rob Joesbury and Jeff Wiehe at


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Story, I was there too. It was a tragedy. Heres some of the photos I took.

Let me know what you think.

Ash McSorley

6:40 PM  

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