By three p.m., it had already been a long day. Having traversed the Piedmont from Lexington to Summerfield, all I wanted to do as I plopped down at my desk was process the footage I’d recorded and go home to cut the lawn. But before I could grab my mouse, a familiar shadow fell over my desk.
“Before you log in, I need you to go check out a fire on South College…”
From the sound of the assignment editor’s voice, I knew it was useless to argue. I grabbed my keys and with only a minimum of grumbling handed my discs to a producer. Hopefully, I’d be right back, I told her and for the next few minutes I really believed it.
Until I saw the heavy black plume of smoke hovering over South High Point. Through the windshield of my news unit I watched the billowing beacon in the distance as I zigzagged through mid-afternoon traffic. A few short minutes later I was at the base of all that smoke, powering up my camera and wondering just what in the hell was on fire. Whatever it was, the smoke emanating from the blaze roiled thick, black and choking. Through my viewfinder I could make out firefighter silhouettes, pulling hoses ,donning masks and yelling into walkie-talkies. Sirens blared around me as more fire engines pulled up. High Point cops blocked streets and waved off traffic as the black haze grew thicker and thicker. Suddenly my workday clock had reset to zero.
So I did what any good photog would do: I popped off a few shots of the confusion and dialed the station. Once I told the suits back at the shop they may want to re-think their lead story, I stashed my gear inside my news unit, jumped in the driver’s seat and cranked the engine. Three minutes, a couple of curses and one jumped-curb later, I found a much better vantage point. As people poured out of cars and buildings to stop and gawk, I set up shop on the sidewalk. Zooming in to the squat brick building at the base of all the smoke, I hit ‘Record’ just in time to capture a tower of flames shoot up through the building’s roof. A chorus of oohs and ahs rang throughout the crowd gathered around me as the heat from the blast washed over us. Whatever the building in the distance housed, it was fueling new flames like an off-shore oil derrick fire.
After quizzing a few curious locals, I learned more about the business at the base of the conflagration. A man in a stained wife-beater t-shirt told me the building was ’Happy Living Incorporated’ - a small furniture factory that had been the victim of some vandalism as of late. Seems someone had set a dumpster on fire out behind the business the day before. Now, those gathered around the blaze were already using the ‘A‘ word. It was less than definitive proof of foul play, but as the flames found the stash of wicker, wood and foam inside, the inferno doubled in strength. Squinting through my lens, I realized, arson or not, I had me another new story.
Much happened over the next ninety minutes. The crowd of onlookers grew in size, turning the my sidewalk post into an impromptu amphitheater. Other news photographers showed up as well, dusty figures on the horizon schlepping cameras and tripods in my direction. Eventually the firefighters contained the blaze, but not before it dazzled the crowd with a display of pyrotechnics usually seen only on old A-Team episodes. Before long, my own back-up arrived, a trusty live truck piloted by one Bob Buckley. Together Bob and I interviewed the owner, who confirmed the possible arson angle. For someone who had just lost his business, Bill Verouden was remarkably composed. I dare say I was grumpier, but the again, we’ve come to expect that, haven’t we?
By the time five o clock hit, I’d cut the footage, set up the live truck and rigged cameras and lights. When the news open ended, Neill McNeill threw it to Bob, who ran down the events like only Bob can. As Bob spoke, the director back at the shop rolled the footage I’d sent them: the plume of smoke, the clouds of fire, and the curious crowd. After a few de facto questions, Neill moved on to other news and our signal was cleared. Sequestering myself in the back of the truck, I began re-editing the footage for our upcoming six o clock report. Bystanders poked their heads into the truck and provided running commentary as I chopped and sliced images from just an hour before. As other news crews set up the gear around us, I chatted with viewers and voyeurs alike. Looking out over the gutted building and exhausted firefighters, it occurred to me I’d probably return to this scene in twelve hours.
Meanwhile my lawn still needs cutting.