You don't know what you've got until it's gone... but you also realize what's important.
Still Life with Soot
Posted February 21, 2016
Why Show These Photos?
If you follow my photos on FB or Flickr regularly,
you've gotten a little of this story. Before those of you who are new to this
jump all over the idea of this blog post let me put your hearts at ease: I was
invited to photograph the aftermath of this tragedy and write about it. Greg
himself took me on a “tour” of the devastation.
Should you be interested in the details of the photography (such as camera
settings) or just want a closer look, you can click on the photos and they will
take you to that photo on flickr.com where you can view them at various sizes
and see the details.
Unlikely Tour Guide
On Oct. 5 Monday, between 5 and 5:30 PM, a fire was
detected in the suburban home of my friends Greg and Marci. Greg was traveling
on business and 6 hours away from home. Marci was home recovering from foot
surgery and not able to move well.
Like Beirut in the 1970's
Investigators believe the fire broke out in the
garage in Marci's car some time before that. Whatever the cause, it was not a
sudden thing – instead it was more of a slow burn that gradually created large
amounts of heat. The fire burned for a considerable period of time before the
windows of the garage finally broke and provided a volume of air to the fire
that allowed it to accelerate.
If there was ever a good time for a fire, this would
have to be it. At that time of the day people are coming and going from their
homes, and folks are out walking dogs and so forth. Two different neighbors
coming from different directions on the street noticed the fire and ran to the
Marci was not supposed to be walking much, and she
needed crutches and even had a walker available for around the house. As she
became aware of the fire though, some degree of panic must have set in. She did
have the presence of mind to grab her cell phone despite what must have been a
fog of urgency and adrenaline.
She was trying to get out the front door and it was
a bad business, but the neighbors helped her get down the steps and away from
the house. Their dog though, seemed overwhelmed by the noise, scents, and emotions
it could sense around it – and in its confusion wanted to go back in the house
A neighbor went back and retrieved the dog but
didn't get credit for it in the official news stories. The reporter covering for
the local paper somehow got the idea that the paramedics that arrived later
rescued the dog.
The Flag, Untouched
Meanwhile, Greg was driving and nearly at his
destination in a place he was not familiar with. Marci tried to call Greg, but
he ignored the call temporarily because he was just coming up to his exit and
needed to pay attention to the GPS. So Marci calls Greg's sister to ask her for
help and Greg's sister gets some friends nearby to go out to the fire.
Marci tried Greg again and didn't reach him so she
sent Greg a text saying “911 emergency” to let him know that something was up.
Greg got the text and called back to hear that their house was on fire.
The response by the fire companies has been
described by some as “uncoordinated” but Greg feels the volunteer fire companies
did the best with what they had considering that time of day creates all sorts
of problems with traffic and availability of personnel.
In true “Murphy's Law” fashion, there were
complications including problems getting a fire hydrant working, as well as
downed power lines. The lines came into the house via the garage where the fire
started and they were burned away before the fire companies could even set up.
You can't stand around dumping water where live wires are down so serious
firefighting had to wait until the line was shut down by the power company.
At some point the neighbor's house also caught fire.
Whether it was from the heat or some debris from the fire, or if the power lines
somehow ignited it – the situation grew even worse.
But back to Greg's call to Marci: she assured him
she was okay though she had hurt her foot and also that the dog was fine. Greg
now called his sister, but his father was there and answered. Both his father
and sister agreed to drop what they were doing and go help Marci.
Greg called his boss to inform him of the situation.
His boss had also had a fire in the past, and since he lived in the area, he
volunteered to go aid Marci. He told Greg not to worry about the job out there,
but to head home. Greg had arrived at the hotel but instead of checking in he
canceled his reservation and began the 6 hour trip home. On the way he
called his insurance company (Erie) to give them a heads up on the situation.
Meanwhile, the EMT's had arrived just as a matter of
course since there were no reports of injuries. In significant pain, Marci was
concerned for her foot fearing torn stitches or worse, so the EMT's decided she
needed a trip to the emergency room. She ended up being there for four hours,
but Greg's dad and sister were with her and even some neighbors. The
support was badly needed: waiting for hours in a hospital emergency room is
never fun; but rendered even more miserable by the knowledge that your house is
Finally, the fire was extinguished before the entire
house was consumed, but the south end of it was mostly gone and the garage a
total loss including the car, two nice Harley Davidson motorcycles, tools, etc.
Greg saw the house for the first time that evening
after the fire was out. Fire trucks were still present. A growing
sense of shock and series of sleepless nights began.
The Morning After
Next morning, police had left a message at the
hospital to expect a visit to the house from a state fire inspector. The
inspector was a State Trooper and was there that morning as promised with the
task of determining the cause of the fire: arson or accidental. The town fire
marshal also arrived and Greg signed an authorization for an investigation and
was interviewed. Marci was staying and recovering with Greg's sister.
Wrapping One's Head Around it
The dog that had been rescued from the house by a
neighbor was staying with that neighbor. Greg saw a woman he didn't know walking
two dogs and one of them was his. After he finished with the fire inspectors he
caught up with her at the neighbor's house next door that had caught fire as
He was petting the dog and the woman remarked what a
great dog he was and Greg told her he was taking him home. She replied that she
was fine with taking care of it so he could leave it with her. Greg said, “But
I'm under orders to bring the dog to Marci”. The neighbor didn't know him and
asked who he was and Greg revealed that it was in fact his house that had burned
and of course the neighbor released the dog to him. She was a sweet lady who
stepped in where she was needed and took the job seriously. It seems to run in
the family as it was her daughter who actually helped Marci escape the blaze.
Later the woman, who is on the auxiliary for the
fire company, was very critical of the response by the authorities – mainly a
lack of control by police in clearing the way for the fire trucks. Fires attract
onlookers and onlookers often get in the way.
The Music Room Piano
Day Three: The Insurance Process Begins
When Greg had contacted Erie Insurance Company they
told him there was nothing to do that night, but they'd get the ball rolling and
be in touch the next day. True to their word they contacted Greg the day of the
inspection and said they were coming out to sit down with them and explain what
comes next. Most people naturally have never gone through this and the insurance
company agent was very reassuring, helpful, and quick to respond.
Virtually all their clothes were lost along with
other objects of day-to-day life most of us take for granted. When they met the
agent he gave them a $20,000 check up front to get them on the road to recovery.
Also he outlined what the process would be going forward. Greg said he and Marci
were amazed to find out how good the insurance company was. As Greg put it, “I
want to say we were 'in good hands' but I know that's Allstate's tag line. But
we both felt from early on that we were with the right guys.”
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
A “loss inventory specialist” came, and the
insurance company asked for a comprehensive list of what Greg and Marci say was
there. Marci didn't have but one shoe because of the dressing and cast on her
foot – so she didn't even have a pair of shoes and Greg had only what he was
wearing plus a change of clothes for the overnight stay in Ohio.
Marci's Other Shoe
Erie started the process of finding them a rental
home to use while the adjustment process proceeded and Greg and Marci made
decisions about their future. As they replaced their things, they kept their
receipts to submit as the process went on. The insurance company's clear view
was that they were there to make their client “whole” as much as that was
possible. Very commendable.
It took very little time to determine that the house
and it's contents were a “total loss”. There were no vagaries concerning what
could or could not be salvaged and how it would affect the payout. The
insurance company got them a hotel room while they found a rental property
equivalent to their ruined home and even helped them rent a car to get them
Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright
After a while, an equivalent home for Greg and Marci
to stay in was found. The insurance company paid for rental furniture even.
But a funny thing happened, one of the coincidences
that I personally see as God's grace. When Greg bought this house he kept his
old condominium as a rental property. The tenant there had a lease for a
considerable time yet. Shortly before the fire the tenant had contacted Greg to have a discussion about breaking the lease.
This was easily negotiated and Greg and Marci are now living in their old condo.
Once again the furnishings are being provided by the insurance company.
Portrait of a Clock
Greg spent considerable time looking for salvageable
things. It wasn't so much the monetary value, but there were so many personal
Like me, Greg is a photographer on the side. Two of
his three camera lenses survived but the camera did not. Greg had wisely bought
“anything happens” insurance on his E-M10 camera and it was replaced due to
water damage without charge by the store where he bought it. The lenses were
professionally cleaned and brought back to life.
He tried to find the old photo albums in the
basement fearing the flooding would destroy them and he brought them upstairs
and covered them thinking them “safe” but subsequent bad weather managed to soak
them. They peeled apart the photographs as best they could but some were just a
loss. The negatives did better and many of the photos can be reproduced.
The digital photography is more problematic and the
hard drives from his Apple iMac computer have been sent to recovery specialists.
Since my visit he saw even more he thinks I could
have photographed but I wasn't able to get back. The house was condemned.
Greg's neighbors took up a collection for he and
Marci as well as for the neighbor whose house was somewhat damaged. Despite the
great neighbors, Greg and Marci have decided not to rebuild on that site. It's a
hard decision to make no matter what you decide.
There are so many things happening emotionally at once. Greg
described some of them.
So many feelings are conflicting creating a sort of
There is a gratitude to be alive but a sense that
something of “you” has been lost
Sense of “sureness” and “security” very much
You feel a bit lost, adrift, as if you've lost your “anchor”
Family friends rally around you
Even strangers want to provide comfort
People want to give you what they can, even if it's not what
Lurkers in the Darkness
Even the “support” can wear thin as you try to be
patient with well-wishers who tell you “everything happens for a reason”.
People like to find a meaning for everything. But sometimes, like Freud's
famous cigar retort, things just are what they are and don't have a “bigger”
meaning. In fact, they are big enough just as they are.
You try to surround yourself with familiar things,
but everything feels different when you're not in “your home”.
I once heard someone say that there is little
emotional difference between what a rich man feels when his mansion burns and
what a homeless man feels when the box he lives in is carted away with his
things. Yes, the circumstances are different for sure – but we are all wired to
some extent with a longing for “home”. We want a place that feels like it's ours
and we belong there. We mourn when it is not there for us, all of us.
Who we are at any one time is the intersection of
our nature and our circumstances. When circumstances change radically we can
actually feel like we don't know who we actually are. Even when the threat is
not existential, it feels like it as we perceive that something has been lost of
who we are.
But Greg said that for all the loss and hardship,
the work of recovering and rebuilding, there is a very real perception that
grows of what is truly important. When you have time to meditate on what
happened and realize that the most important things are still with you – your
life and that of your spouse – a different perspective develops that makes it at
least a little easier to move forward.
After all, it is life itself and not its
circumstances that are the most important thing.
Martin is Dead
Exploring a Burned Home
Most of us who try to make art out of ruin have been in places which
have seen the touch of time. It is however unusual to visit a place you
know that was such a part of people you know. It was a wonderous thing
that Greg asked me to come photograph his destroyed dwelling place.
There's a sort of mouth-agape wonder to it. And a
good many surprises as you find what the fire did and did not destroy. Sometimes
it seems almost capricious as if the fire decided what it wanted and what it
In some instances, you find yourself scratching your
head. In the scene below so much is burned and melted... but the case holding a
Martin Guitar looks nearly untouched. However that's misleading as the guitar
within did not survive the heat. Interestingly, Martin was notified of the
loss of one of their guitars and actually sent a representative to Marci's
United Way workplace and presented her with a replacement.
Greg's camera and lenses were also in this room but
somehow two of the lenses were no more than soot and water damaged and could be
salvaged while other things in the same bag were totally ruined.
The Library at Alexander
Some rooms were so amazing to see. In the darkness
formed by boarded and smoked windows ordinary objects take on extraordinary
aspects. The opening shot of this blog post is a favorite of mine showing a nice
decorative plant arrangement in the dining room looking like it's from
“Beetlejuice” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. Such examples of things
surviving the heat, smoke, and water are to me just astonishing.
Cabinets when opened often revealed nearly untouched
A guitar in the darkness of what had been a
living-room devoted to music and jam sessions survived tarnished, but unbroken.
Greg is a fiddler as well as proficient at other
instruments and is a bluegrass aficionado. His fiddle made it, or at least
appears to have.
Opening a very burned hutch in the devastated south
end of the house reveals something surprising: tapes and DVD's that still work.
And the bedroom adjacent to the destroyed garage
lost it's roof and most of it's contents – and yet somehow these bathrobes made
it through all of it.
Some things have quite an effect on one. They
maintained a room for when their niece visits and thinking about possible
tragedy here is a sad thing.
Little Girl's Room
How these stuffed toys made it is just another
mystery. She probably doesn't want them in their new condition and they are
without a home now.
While we were exploring the area around the little
girl's room, I kept hearing what I thought were faint voices and pointed it out
Finding a Talking Toy
It turned out to be a talking toy, completely buried
under the debris, and plaintively calling out for interaction. If you click on
the photo below it will take you to a video where you can hear it. Why it would
speak when it did, which was not anything consistent, is yet another mystery –
as is of course the fact that it still works!
A Voice from the Debris
In the severely damaged south bedroom was a jewelry
cabinet. It survived a room that was otherwise devastated by flames – the same
room where the bathrobes were.
Untouched within it were heirloom wedding rings
passed down to Marci.
Marci's Family Rings
But not everything that “survived” was untouched. A
wedding dress passed down to Marci through her family still retains its form –
but will likely never be the same.
Heirloom Wedding Dress
The lesson for us all is that the things that really
matter, independent of our circumstances, are the people we love. Greg and Marci
are still with us, and in the grand sweep of existence, that is what is most
“The four things that matter in life: 1) love 2) honesty 3) faith 4) courage.” ― Bill Butterworth