Charles and I were hunting graffiti when the plume first appeared. Tall, dark and toxic, it loomed above High Point from just a few blocks away. Nether Charles or I wanted anything to do with the conflagration in question: our graffiti story was already half-shot and lunch was on our minds. But to ignore that swirling tower of thick black smoke wouldn’t just have been dereliction of duty. It would have been against our very DNA. So we did what any self-loathing newsgatherer would do: We raced to its base and only bitched a little along the way.
A few minutes later, fire trucks in my rear view mirror persuaded me to pull over. As I did, they raced past and turned down a side street, their sirens bringing out the curious from half empty factories and rundown homes. With our only route now blocked by a growing phalanx of fire engines, I threw Unit 4 into Park and rolled out of its air-conditioned cockpit. Grabbing my gear from the back, I set up shop there on the side of the road, clicking my camera onto the tripod plate and zooming in past half a block of urban blight to the patch of flames now visible at the bottom of all that smoke.
“I’m gonna try and get you closer!”
Looking up, I came face to face with a fireman I did not know. On the left chest of his turn-out jacket, the letters PIO told me he was the department’s Public Information Officer. Apparently, he was a good one, for sixty seconds after this curious proclamation, he returned and hooked a finger his way. Suddenly, we were off - humping our equipment and dodging firefighters as the PIO led us through a maze of ladder trucks and over countless bulging hoses. On the other side of this hastily parked fleet, Charles and I got our first look at the dilapidated house beneath the plume. Flames licked the roofline as firefighters trained their watery arcs this way and that.
But it wasn’t just cameras and fire helmets gathered outside the burning home. All around us neighbors stood and stared as cinders popped and fire engines roared. Out of the corner of my left eye. I could see a couple of shirtless young men gesturing toward me, their faces screwed into masks of hatred. To my right, I watched as a gigantic woman in a too-tight housecoat walk up to Charles and in no uncertain terms, express her displeasure at the media’s sudden appearance. Charles hemmed and hawed. Instead of telling the woman her permission wasn’t needed, he stalled - giving me precious moments to record the inferno at hand. Finally, she came at me.
“You can’t be here! This is MY house! I don’t wanna see it burnin’ down on the damn tee-vee!” From there, the woman’s pain devolved into profanity. I could only nod knowingly as she berated me, locking eyes with Charles before scanning the crowd for back-up. There was none. With nary a cop in sight and more and more neighbors gathering behind the homeowner, I made a big show of stepping onto the public street and tried to reason with the lady. It was useless. Everything she owned was turning to ash and I was the asshole in the tropical shirt lusting at the edges. Before I could explain to her how the coverage might actually bring her some assistance, she spotted the PIO and demanded he escort me immediately out of her sight.
He seemed genuinely pained when he leaned over to me and Charles and shouted over the din. “Ya’ll boys got every right to be here, but this woman’s real upset. Whether you move is up to you, but this ain’t the neighborhood you wanna piss off. Stay if you want, but I can’t guarantee your safety!” The PIO’s last sentence hung in the air and Charles and I stared each other down as it refused to dissipate. No one was inside the burning home. I had a dozen shots of bright orange flame committed to disc. The two shirtless young men were flexing their tattooed torsoes and threatening to burn OUR houses down someday. What was a bit of inconvenient spot news for us, was the worst day imaginable for the folks who called that gutted structure home...