Thursday, September 16, 2010

Flashbacks Through a Camera Lens: Why It's Hard to Forget But Easy to Help

Shards of glass from the windows were embedded into the thick ivy that covered the full side of the house. The window frames were reduced to splinters on the ground. Construction workers looked on from the road while drilling into the earth and reworking the dirt in front of the house with bulldozers. While all of these details caught my eye, the worst part was the front door. It had been ripped off the front of the house and the sentiment mimicked the torn heart of the woman sitting on the porch.

The fire might have been small but the damage was evident. The inside of the house looked as though a tornado had consumed all of the belongings and then whipped them out in random directions. The smell of smoke and burning plastic seemed to hang in the air as I walked through what seemed like a reoccurring dream. Everything about the scene reminded me of my past, especially the woman standing by my side showing me the damage. I started to get flashbacks as I inspected the damage through the lens of my camera.


On December 23, 2007, I awoke to my three story farm house engulfed in flames. As the fire alarm went off, I could have sworn it was just my morning alarm buzzing to remind me that I had to catch the bus in thirty minutes. But it was 3 AM. Then the door swung open and smoke poured into my room along with my brother screaming that we had to get outside. Adrenaline pushed me out of bed, into my rubber ducky bathrobe, and down the stairs. Red and yellow consumed my eyes.


As I continued to walk around and observe, family members and friends were moving things in and out of the house before the landlord came to board it up. Daunting reptile cages with tarantulas inside were being passed back and forth. Confused, I headed upstairs to the second floor to uncover the origin of these pets. When I reached the top of the stairs, I was met with more torn doors and holes in the ceiling from where the fire department attempted to unblock the ventilation.


I pushed my mom away from the phone as she was repeatedly stating the wrong address to the 9-1-1 operator. We were standing on the porch which was already halfway consumed in fire and could not leave for safer grounds since our house phone was not cordless. When we confirmed the address my mom and I ran towards the grass and away from our home of eight years. Where was my brother? Where was my dad? All I could do was watch in absolute horror at the blazing building that I used to call home. I heard screaming but couldn’t force myself to turn around. I didn’t realize how closely I was standing to the flames until my dad suddenly emerged from the basement. He was covered head to toe in black ash and looked like he was about to collapse. I thought he was going to die and I couldn’t even move.


I saw snake skin out of the corner of the camera lens and got weak in the knees. I was told that one of the resident’s family members rescued abandoned or hurt reptiles and took care of them. This news deepened my sorrow as I knew that the residents clearly had good intentions and had a deep love for animals. While not all of the reptiles and spiders survived, a very lucky puppy made it through the disaster. Cajan, an adorable brown and black freckled canine with an undeniable will to live, was alive and well after the fire. Rescued from Hurricane Katrina, Cajan had already escaped a much larger catastrophe and showed off his cool demeanor by lying in his cage with a silly grin on his face.


Fire fighters, police, neighbors. Everyone was in my face and trying to comfort me. But I wasn’t there. I didn’t know where I was or even who I was. Someone had moved me off of the patio and away from the house as fiery siding curled off the exterior walls and fell like comets into my mom’s daylily garden. I was barefoot. My eyes were watering but I made sure everyone understood that it was because of the smoke and not because I was crying. And that was the truth. The last thing I remember happening that night was staring back at the ball of light in the middle of my valley as we drove away. And then it was over.


When a disaster hits, we all want to help the victims. As human beings, it’s in our blood. As I looked at the victims of this Chicago fire, I knew I had to be there to comfort them. I could see the pain in their eyes and it resonated within me.

I can think of a million reasons why my house burning down was a positive experience but that is something that comes with time. All I could do was comfort the family and reassure them that everything would be okay in the end. Even though I played a small role on the road to recovery, I will never forget the family, the scene and the atmosphere of my first field reporting assignment.

My name is Lauren Snyder and I am a Red Cross communicator.


Zachary Zimmerman said...

Excellent story Lauren. I loved how honest and detailed this story was. Sometimes it's comforting to draw parallels with struggles someone else is having with the same struggles you are having. Great work! I look forward to more stories from you and your time at the Red Cross!

Jackie Mitchell said...

Lauren, my family also lost their home in a fire, and like your story, it ended up being an incredibly positive turning point in our lives, even though it was impossible to recognize at the time. I also draw hope from my family's experience when I go out on a disaster call and find myself comforting others. You are a gifted writer, indeed. The contribution you will be remembered for here at the Red Cross, though, will unmistakeably be the heart you bring to your work.