I covered a fire with three fatalities on Saturday. A mother, age 32, and two of her boys. Jonathan was 8, and Nicholas was 2. They were all found together after the fire was put out.
It happened late at night, around 4 a.m. in their single wide trailer, a way out of town in a rural slum, in a multi-family compound with lots of junk everywhere. They were all related. They all had the same last name.
The flames engulfed the trailer. The fire chief told me later how a trailer can explode like that -- how that hot fire can begin from an electric short, and creep around through the walls and up through the ceiling, spreading and spreading, until it breaks through into the air, and a sudden rush of oxygen feeds the fire into a torrent of flame -- the people inside were sound asleep and they didn't have a chance.
Alex, the 10 year-old boy, awoke to flames. He got to his father. His father sent him down the road to his auntie to call the fire department. The father tried to get into the room where the mother and the two kids were trapped -- but he collapsed from smoke inhalation.
The firemen came. They said they could do nothing -- it was all over.
I got there at noon -- eight hours later. It was very calm. I talked to the sheriff for a while. Then I talked to the relatives -- sisters and brothers and uncles, all with the same last name, all living in this compound out in the brush. They hadn't begun to cry.
It wasn't until Monday that emotions began to break. I called the uncle. I said I needed a photo of the family for the newspaper, so he brought one in -- a picture of the three boys, the two younger ones who died, and the older one who suffered some burns, but not seriously.
Then I began to feel tears, looking at the photo. I showed it around the office. We agreed that we could not use the photo in the newspaper. It was just too strong. It was hard enough to make the headline, "Mother, two children die in home fire" over a black and white photo of the ruins of their trailer home.
The photo of the children might be used next week in the formal obituary.
It was the firemen who suffered the most, outside of the family. The ones who came at 4 a.m. and watched helplessly, knowing that the woman and children had died inside. The firemen were volunteers -- they were friends with the family.
The toughest hardest thing was for Ed, the fire chief. It was he and the funeral director who removed the bodies -- not old bodies, naturally dead. I have done that, cleaned up granma in the hospital when she died, washed her, combed her hair, straightened her out, tucked in the blankets nicely, and put the sheet over her head. That is a simple act of respect.
No, this was different.This was very hard for Ed. He is the chief, and he has to do the hardest job -- even for the funeral director it was hard -- to find these burned children and their mother and to carry them out.