Heartbreak on Schuyler Street, through a photographer's lens
The fatal fire on Schuyler Street Monday caused a lot of emotion, and you could see it in the eyes of the firefighters, the bystanders, and even the media who was there attempting to sort out the chaos and report it to viewers and readers.
One of those at the scene was WKTV's Photojournalist Tim Fisher - a 40 year veteran of the news business, who wanted to respond to an onlooker saying firefighters didn't do enough to save the family. The same onlooker who struck Tim when he saw him recording video at the scene.
WKTV decided it was important to show you Tim's side of the story, in his own words:
"Bringing you the news and stories of the day is our job and it is a vocation we take seriously. We are granted access to people and events that are often beyond what most folks experience. We observe, record, and report what we see and hear and understand to be the facts and realities that occur in and impact our community.
An important piece of our mission is to give voice to those who may otherwise be ignored. But we must also give perspective to the events we attend, especially when the voices we present seem one sided, unbalanced, or inaccurate.
At yesterday's fatal fire on Schuyler Street in West Utica, some close to the family felt that the fire department did not try hard enough to find and rescue the 4 who died.
What I can tell you is the following:
Pat Bailey and I arrived across the street from 935 Schuyler Street within 15 minutes of the initial call from Utica fire dispatch. I know this because we literally walked away from what we were doing at the WKTV studios on Smith Hill and drove down to the scene.
I immediately began to record the smoke and flames and work of the firefighters and police officers. Within 2 minutes I observed and recorded a firefighter exit the front door of the house, looking tired and spent. Flames were shooting out of front windows and smoke was pouring out of a side window with flames licking at the roof just above it.
About 3 minutes later a couple of men rushed up to the police officer next to me, breathless as if they had been running, agitated, desperation in their voices, and began to shout that there were 3 or 4 people in the burning apartment.
One of them, the same one who said later that he felt not enough was done to search and rescue the occupants, observed me recording him and lunged at me. At the time, believing he was probably the father of those in the building, I felt compelled to be understanding of his emotional out burst. This was an awful, dreadful day for those whose family and friends were in danger.
But it is important to note that firefighters had already attempted to search the building and had made the judgment that conditions were too dangerous, the fire too hot, (indeed I can say that I felt a bit of that wall of heat all the way across the street). They also determined the building too unsafe. Chief Brooks said he knew from his experience that conditions were lethal and could become so for firefighters as well.
I observed the firefighters pouring water from at least 5 hoses and multiple angles into the building as police and fire chiefs attempted to gain accurate information from frantic, nearly hysterical family and friends.
Within another 5 minutes the fire was pushed back enough to gain entrance. This time with better information about bedrooms and such, they found children and their mother who had perished in the inferno.
As they brought out the bodies, some firefighters stumbled and fell or knelt on the ground, obviously exhausted.
The fire was then attacked with more water once the searchers were out and eventually it was extinguished.
I am a photojournalist. I am obviously not a firefighter. But I have to present the narrative that I feel is accurate and true, the more so because one that I perceive to be clouded with emotion and grief has already been told, demanding another perspective.
And the story that played yesterday in front of my camera was one of desperately difficult work culminating in a terrible and heart rending loss that tore at the faith and fabric of the determined and experienced first responders. The outcome they instinctively understood as in all probability inevitable almost seemed to cut them down, yet they saw it through.
They never gave up, fighting the fire as well as their grief that lives were lost. They reminded me of an iconic image from my childhood of an aging Y.A. Tittle, kneeling after his NY Giants were defeated in the old NFL title game. But this was no game. For firefighters this is their life and livelihood. On the one hand it was "just another day at the office". But on the other it was a loss that will surely "take a piece of their heart out'.
I admired these firefighters. They gave it everything they had. The heat was intense, the flames an awesome sight that struck fear deep into my heart. But they never shrank. They went into the heat, faced down the flames, searched in the thick sticky sickening and frightening darkness that filled 935 Schuyler Street on Monday morning. They just did their job as they had learned it and as they were directed by their chiefs.
Why do I take this time you may ask?
First, as I have said, this is my job. I am duty bound to reflect what I witnessed as accurately and precisely as I am able. But I also believe it is important, especially at this moment in our country's history, when public servants are being resented for what they earn or bargain for, to see them at work as they truly are. Folks just like all the rest of us, doing a hard days work. In this case it was an extremely intense job in which they faced "a clear and present danger". Still, they just did it and then went back to their firehouse to await the next call. We don't even know their names.
Did they do all they could?? I wish you could have watched and listened and felt what I did yesterday. Then I would be happy to just leave it up to you. But I hope this helps."