Posted on | November 21, 2013 | 19 Comments
I debated leaving this at an angry tweet.
Writing it wasn’t easy. Some of my clothes still smell like the fire. Some of the images began as words written on a white screen and became memories I have to tear from my mind. I couldn’t do this yesterday because I was crying too much. You know the type of tears where you aren’t thinking about what makes you sad. You’ve become tiny inside your own emotion and you can fight it or go down gracefully. So helpless you are barely human. But today I’m angry. About the people who filmed us.
I contemplated my own experience as a journalist and all the things I learned at school. I know that it’s hard to get a job in the news media today when people are being laid off left and right. And then my request for an apology went unanswered. Then when I couldn’t sleep as I watched the video. And the rage was too uncontrollable to keep to myself.
And I decided I’d say this.
Many of you are probably aware that my house burned down. That one of the people in my house didn’t get out safely and may or may not live. I don’t know the answer to this because the media moved on too quickly to keep us informed about what was happening to her. They moved on too quickly to offer us anything other than images of the worst moments in my life.
From friends and family and my community I’ve received incredible support. I can say that it means the world. That it shows me truly how much love I have in my life. And I feel like I’ve been given a second chance to do it right. Which is true. Every fiber of my being wants to be alive and is grateful for the chance to be so.
I can’t really get around how this situation is a tragedy and not a life lesson. Someone just as deserving of a happy life is at best facing a horrible road ahead.
I can’t tell you how surreal it felt to hear my roommate yelling that we had to leave the house. There was something in his voice that said there was no alternative but to get out as quickly as possible. Adrenaline rushed and autopilot Michael Kimber took hold.
Pants were necessary. Socks were necessary but there wasn’t time. I could already smell the smoke and was trying to figure out what it was. It was making its way through the house vents with a smell of burnt tires. It would leave holes in the walls.
Suddenly we were on the street and there was a bizarre feeling of being in a fire drill without properly dressing first. Shivering in a button up denim shirt and jeans covered in mustard. A certainty I would be able to sleep in my own bed in record time. That this was a surreal nightmare that would be over in minutes and I’d be able to laugh about it.
Only there was the sound of someone beating on our backdoor. Fists flying so hard they could be heard as we made our exit. So loud they’ll never leave my thoughts.
But we were outside. Lucky. Alive. Maybe they were trying to warn us. Maybe everything was still okay.
Only it wasn’t. Someone was in the alleyway. Someone whose fists could have beaten in the door if given a few more seconds.
Then I heard my basement neighbor yelling for us to call 911.
This wasn’t like my rooommate Evan calling for us to get out of the house. This is a tone you probably can’t relate to because you rarely get to hear it in real life. The type of sound that exists only in the worst situations where vocal chords stretch, hearts break and minds are pushed past the point of no return. When life or death is a question in your voice and you can’t change the pitch of your voice because everything inside of you is shaking, every safe place in your mind is already on fire.
The windows in the alleyway were barred and too small for a human to squeeze out of.
I grabbed a snowshovel and used the hand grip to smash through the glass.
Inside it was bright orange red. Like something that shouldn’t exist in real life, a work of special effects. Smoke came out like burnt Santa Claus beard.
Our neighbor’s girlfriend was still inside. Her boyfriend screamed for her to wake up. To get out of the house. I didn’t hear a response. I joined in the shouting.
“You have to get out of there. You have to get out.”
My German roommate passed us all of his important belongings in the world frantically collected and stuffed in his backpack. Then he tried to help. He went to our back door and kicked it open in an attempt to grab the fire extinguisher. He couldn’t get inside. There was already too much smoke.
We called him back. We couldn’t lose him.
Evan called out and told us 911 said we shouldn’t attempt to rescue her.
Again I can’t really explain how this feels.
What it means to wait to find out whether someone in your home is going to live or die.
And I truly can’t imagine what it felt like for her boyfriend. Because I have never made those sounds before. Because I’ve never been so close to losing so much. I can only relate in those seconds I have during the day where I imagine if things had gone differently. If any of the people I knew and loved were in that basement. And I couldn’t do anything to help. Where I shouted until I could barely speak into a window where no one replied.
Within minutes the firemen had arrived. With us yelling where they needed to go.
Holding our downstairs basement neighbour as he screamed, wept and screamed. Going from standing up with his hands pointing to the sky to prayer on his knees.
And then it happened.
Cameramen had shown up.
My first request was polite or as polite as I could be under those circumstances.
“Don’t film this.”
No response. The lens captured us holding our screaming neighbor as he wept and begged for something to be done. My Mexican roommate in my overlarge winter coat. Tears falling down our faces like shattered glass as we tried to keep control over the overwhelming misery slipping into our chests with the smoke. Taking turns holding him. Letting him go when we could feel that touch was breaking him. Holding him again when he needed it. Listening to him and not being able to hear the words.
Assuring him it was going to be okay and knowing we were lying.
We all knew we had lost most everything we owned. Barely clothed. Missing shoes. Coats. In the freezing temperature as smoke poured from our home where we were happy. Where we found eachother and became family. The location where Toronto lived and breathed for us. Where so many happy memories became pavement without shoes, cold without jackets, and the sound of our neighbor begging for life for the woman he loved more than anything.
And he had it so much worse.
And they filmed us.
Anything to keep you watching. The easiest approach to a story. Show the pain.
He said nothing to me.
And then something cracked in me. Call it my heart’s limit. Call it a knowledge of journalistic ethics that says there are more important things than a story. That no one should see their son alive and dying a thousand deaths with every inhalation.
“Turn the camera away from him or I break it and then I break you,” I think I said. Maybe there were more swear words.
I tried to cover the lens. And then he said, “Don’t.” No emotion.
I replied with more curse words. You can’t put cursing on the news.
I may have indicated that he had one more chance before he saw what was going on inside. Before he understood what humans pushed to the very limit of their comprehension of human horror can teach you about being a gentleman. My Mexican roommate moved in the immensity of my winter jacket to add her own choice words, displaying some English she’d learned in her years in Canada where she had made a home.
No response. Not even in his eyes. Just firm hands and a desire to protect his camera.
A policeman blocked us. Told me to stop. They weren’t breaking any laws. The street was public property. The world was allowed to see this. Just not the swearing.
“Stop,” said the policeman. “You have to.”
And I did. And when I couldn’t sleep I could look at the footage. Of the happiest home I ever lived in burning. Of my neighbour’s girlfriend as they revived her on the scene. And then nothing. No reports on how she was doing.
A new story was up. Because they are advertisments that pay salaries. They knew our trauma would prevent you from switching the channel. It was a human interest story without an attention span. Once the pretty pictures were finished there was no interest in the people left behind. There was no interest in what we felt even as we waited to see if she would escape the blaze.
It could have been my parents who watched me taken from the house. My life or death depended on two minutes and a warning screamed my roommate Evan. I could have been the one losing my mind as my best friends fought to breath amidst the smoke and fire that looked like the very mouth of hell.
I know that you don’t understand what it was like. My words aren’t powerful enough to do that. You can tell me I should be glad to be alive and I am. But love can’t take those images out of my mind or the sound of his fists beating against the door.
Journalists are better than this.
Don’t think for a second you helped us. Don’t think for a second you helped anyone but your company which sends you to find the pain, feel the pulse and go before the tears dry on our cheeks.
I will take care of the shattered pieces of the people I love. We will build from this and be a family bonded together by a million good jokes, by hugs, tears and survival.
At the worst moment of our lives you hurt us. You denied us basic dignity. For a story. Please contemplate why your desire for human interest stories placed no interest in our humanity.