Off the Press
January 17, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Lessons learned in fire and ice
Journalism often requires reporters to meet people under undesirable circumstances — behind police tape or against a flickering backdrop of emergency lights.
Under such circumstances, we strive for compassion, but sometimes, we forget about the people on the other side of the notebook amid the clamor to chase down a story or ferret out some key detail.
I experienced a story on the other side of the notebook early Jan. 16 and, hopefully, came away a little more enlightened and understanding.
Just before 4 a.m., a neighbor pounded on the door to my apartment in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.
“Get out! There’s a fire!” he yelled, and then headed down the corridor to warn sleeping occupants in other apartments.
I sat up in bed and switched on the nightstand lamp, still confused and more than a little skeptical. Then, commotion in the hallway outside confirmed I needed to get outside — and fast.
I slipped a coat on top of the T-shirt and flimsy pants I wear as pajamas, then started to search for slippers before I realized I needed something more durable to stand up to the ice and snow on the ground outside. In the next instant, I stuck a cap on my head, grabbed my keys, phone and wallet and lurched into the hallway.
“Is this real?” I asked a next-door neighbor shuffling to the exit.
“It smells real,” he replied, as smoke started to waft into the corridor from a fire on the floor above.
Outside, neighbors in assorted combinations of sleepwear and winter gear crunched through the snow. Some clutched cats in carriers and dogs on leashes. I wondered if I should have grabbed my iPad on the way out.
Together, the crowd trundled around the corner to the building’s facade. Flames surged from a blown-out window on the second floor. Smoke hung heavy in the 30-degree air.
Belatedly, I started to consider the possibility of the fire spreading to consume the entire building.
The building sits at the top of Queen Anne Hill. Snowfall from the previous day left the streets slick and treacherous.
“What if the fire trucks can’t make it up the Counterbalance due to the ice?” I wondered, moments before Seattle Fire Department trucks screamed down the street. (Steep Queen Anne Avenue is also called the Counterbalance.)
Then, as my neighbors and I clustered on a corner across from the building, firefighters headed inside to search for trapped residents and to extinguish the blaze. TV reporters followed soon after.
I started to notice some similarities present on either side of the notebook, for both journalist and subject. Crises involve a long wait for information. In the meantime, the hems on my pajama pant legs kept freezing to the icy sidewalk.
The firefighters kept us in the loop as much as possible and offered to let us warm up in the fire trucks’ cabs, although for whatever reason — pride, maybe — nobody accepted the invitation. Instead, after about 90 minutes, a King County Metro Transit bus pulled up, and my neighbors and I trundled aboard. Slumped into seats, bleary-eyed and shivering, we waited for coffee shops to open and repeated stories about escaping from the building.
I sat near a neighbor dressed in enough winter gear to put REI to shame. Uncertain about the danger, he said he spent the extra moments putting on proper clothes to protect against the January chill.
Just after 6 a.m., firefighters allowed us to head back inside. The blaze had been contained to a single unit on the opposite side of the building. Mercifully, my apartment had been spared smoke or water damage. But the neighbor in the destroyed apartment had to rely on the American Red Cross for temporary shelter.
During the wait on the bus, I checked out news accounts of the fire on my iPhone. Though the stories had the basic facts correct, details about the building and the number of residents lacked precision.
The incident offered a teachable moment about the gap between the outsider’s perception and the subject’s reality. The fire did not rank as a major story — just a moment on the morning news and a few hundred words in online news outlets — but the experience lingers, just like the smell of smoke in the hallway of my apartment building.