Tuesday, December 2, 2008

December Third

Strange how certain memories in your life seem to fall on the same day.

December 3rd is like that for me, although I never realized it until after 1999. That year, this day became forever etched in my mind. But before that, other random memories and events seemed to float dateless in my mind, as I never took notice of the fact that they also happened on a December 3rd. They were both happy moments and troubling ones.

One December 3rd....

Ozzy Osbourne was born in 1948! My life would never be the same ...of course, it would be a while before I was actually born, myself! :-)

1973 - Pioneer 10 sends back the first close-up images of Jupiter. I was 8 years old then, I remember this got me to thinking about space, the galaxy, the universe.

1976 - Reggae performer Bob Marley is shot, but survived, returning to the stage at a concert two days later. Later, he would not be so lucky...

1979 - This one terrified me. I was 14, and about to attend my first concert a month later. On this night in 1979, 11 concert goers were trampled to death at a Who concert in Cincinnati. I remember the shadowy images on the news, and I remember that this was the age that I actually started watching the news regularly, in all it's tragedy as well as glory. I've attended nearly 100 concerts since then, and this event was on my mind at every one of them, if only for a moment.

1984 - A chemical leak at Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India kills thousands and injures over a half million people. This incident made me think globally - the images I saw put faces to the unknown people half way around the world. On a personal note, a new respect for my father was born. He had served in the China-Burma-India theater during WWII, and for once I realized how far he had traveled in his time. Pretty impressive for a truck driver who quit school after the 6th grade.

1987 - One of my fondest memories af all time! And a proud day to be a Boston Bruins fan. Phil Esposito's jersey was being retired at the Boston Garden...the old "Gaaahden"! He had worn the number 7 when he played for the Bruins, winning two Stanley Cups during his career. These days,the number was emblazened on the back of another fan favorite, Ray Bourque. But during the ceremony, Bourque goes up to Esposito, hands him a Bruins jersey with "Esposito" and the number 7 on it....then proceeds to remove his own number 7 jersey to reveal another jersey underneath: one with the number 77 on it, the number Ray Bourque would wear for the remainder of his career. Esposito's number had been officially retired. Goosebumps and pride, what a great combination!

One of my favorite actresses, Madeline Kahn, succumbed to ovarian cancer on December 3, 1999, but I did not hear that news until the following day.

By then, this had happened:

I first heard of the warehouse fire as I switched on the 10:00 news after an evening on my own. My husband (then, boyfriend) was working that night, and I was expecting his goodnight call at any moment. It didn't sink in at first - I wondered for a moment where this could be. I saw the words at the bottom of the screen, "Two Firefighters Dead..." in the caption, and my heart stopped beating for a moment when I saw the word: Worcester. The city where my husband worked ...as a firefighter. By the time the phone rang, the number on the screen had risen to four dead. The first call was my mother-in-law, asking if I had heard from Steve. I had not. I began to wonder if I should go somewhere, call someone, but I wanted to stay home, keep the line clear. The phone rang again. It was Steve.

I can't share what was said, other than he told me six were dead, and he mentioned the name of one I knew rather well. He was borrowing someone else's cellphone, so the conversation was short. I didn't feel the relief I should have felt, as I knew there were other families who were not so lucky as I was at that moment. All I could think about was the wife of the fallen firefighter I knew, imagining what she must be going through now. He told me she had been brought there, to a nearby church where the other families were gathering, holding out one last glimmer of hope.

The first alarm had come in at 6:13 PM.

Those on the scene probably didn't think too much of it at first; every so often you hear of an old mill, abandoned or otherwise, going up in flame here in New England. I imagine, knowing how long and boring a quiet night can be to a firefighter, there was probably some sense of excitement at first. But then someone reported that two homeless people had been living in this abandoned warehouse, and there was now a sense of urgency. Soon the burning building was swarming with firefighters, searching for anyone who may be trapped by the thickening smoke and fast-moving fire. Two homeless people had indeed been living there, but after accidentally starting the fire by knocking over a candle during an argument, they fled the scene. But of course, those on the job that night had no way of knowing that. And before they knew it, they were searching for some of their own.

The next morning, I saw my husband cry for the first time. He talked about the men, the fire, the chaos, the confusion, the disbelief. He said everything he had ever learned in his career as a firefighter, he used that night. He finally laid down to grab some sleep before heading back to the scene, and meanwhile several friends called or stopped by. One woman, whose name I did not know but I had seen her around town, knocked on the door and asked "Is your husband home?" I nodded, trying to figure out whether I should call him down, whether I should correct her and say we were not married, but she just nodded and said, "I just wanted to be sure" and left. She didn't know our name either, but she cared enough to knock on a stranger's door. By early afternoon the first of the bodies was recovered, and we went to the scene. I remember my husband saying, "It's real now."

It took a week to recover them all. In the midst of that, some 30,000 firefighters from all over the country - even one from as far awya as Ireland - descended upon the city of Worcester for the memorial at the Centrum. The scene of the procession, marching towards downtown still sends chills up my spine - it was a moment of beauty in a week of grief. The day of the memorial, as I walked to the Centrum with my mother-in-law and nieces, I saw a cop from Oklahoma City. He was actually directing the crowd towards the entrance, and I remember our eyes meeting for a moment. He knew what we must be feeling.

It was a horrible time, but one that showed you how great a community, a state, a country, a world we live in. The public opened their hearts as well as their wallets for the families. I wish I had had the foresight to take pictures of the signs - the marquees, cardboard signs - all expressing thoughts and prayers of sympathy. Literally, every business acknowledged the tragedy, the families or the city's firefighters. One day a landscape company showed up at Fire Department Headquarters and planted 6 Bradford Pear Trees on the grounds. An auto detailing company sent a crew to detail one of the engines, to be used in the funeral procession. People just showed up, honored the fallen and those trying to cope, then left - they didn't wait to be asked, and they didn't ask to be paid for their good deeds.

Residents of the city of Worcester united like never before, showing their appreciation for firefighters any way they could. I was driving in the funeral procession for one of them and I saw something I will never forget: a young woman, standing on the side of the road holding a sign "Firefighters saved my son's life (C.P.R)" At every station, impromptu memorials sprung up, mostly containing flowers, stuffed animals and children's artwork. Some were heartwrenching, like a child's well thought-out drawing of a firetruck, a black cloud of smoke and six firefighters and the words "I'm sorry you died" written in crayon. I later attended an event where we had the opportunity, as families of Worcester firefighters, to respond to the thousands of letters and cards sent to the fire department. It was an uplifting experience, being able to in some small way communicate to the outside world, and send a personal thank you to those who were showering us with kind words and prayers. We all looked at eachother in a different light, and soon it became ok to smile, to laugh. There were so many who wanted to participate, that we were only allowed to stay an hour or so.

We got our Christmas tree on December 23rd. We had almost forgotten. My mother completed her first series of chemo, and readied herself for the next round, as well as another surgery. Nine years later, she is cancer free.

A brand new fire station now stands on the site of the Cold Storage building. I watched it being designed ... in my home office, by my husband, who earned a degree in architecture in 2002. He played a big part in the design, and having the building come in not only under budget but also ahead of schedule. You'll never hear the politicians say so, but the people who matter most to him - his fellow firefighters - know it. He says it's a fire station that architects hate, but firefighters will love, and that's how it should be. Plus, every time he drives by it - or if he should ever find himself spending a shift there - he knows where it came from, even if the general public does not.

I wonder what other random events will land on the block in my calendar marked December 3rd? For us, I doubt any will ever hold the meaning that the Cold Storage Fire does. Even post 9/11, I can still remember when the eyes of the world were on Worcester. But I can only hope the third day of December will never see another deadly fire, another horrible industrial accident, another assassination attempt or more deaths at a concert. Instead, I hope another Ozzy will be born, a distant planet will be seen by human eyes for the first time, or another beloved athlete or celebrity will show us why we love him so.

Hopefully in the end, December 3rd will balance out...maybe even in our favor.


jamieswifey4life said...

Christine, your story has brought tears to my eyes. My brother is a firefighter, and although I've never personally experienced anything like that, knowing how close firefighters and their families become over the years, I can only imagine. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story! ~Amanda~

ChristineM said...

Thank you for your comment, Amanda! Tell your brother to stay safe! Will keep him in my prayers! ;)

L.B. said...

How eerie that all of these things happened on the same day in different years. Thanks for sharing that with us. Definitely made me stop and think. Also - false advertising! - there wasn't anything mundane about this post. Marvelous, yes, mundane, no :)

ChristineM said...

Thank you, LB! :)

L.B. said...

Christine, I neglected to mention... in 1999 or so I wrote a story about some World War II vets. They had some sort of get together with fellow veterans who had served in the China-Burma-India theater during the war and I found them quite interesting. They left an impression for several reasons, mainly the camaraderie they shared. They said that all the attention had been focused on Europe and the Pacific but that the work done in the China-Burma-India was just as dangerous and not quite as known. They were right, because I knew little of that. They also wrote a kind note of thanks to my editor which I still have. Amidst all the negative garbage I get on a weekly basis from readers, to this day that is one of the things that helps balance things out. Anyway, the note about your dad and China-Burma-India rang a bell and just wanted to share that with you.

ChristineM said...

LB, thank you so much for sharing that! I remember when I was in high school, I knew my dad had served during WWII but we never learned anything about the CBI theater - we just focused on Europe or Pearl Harbor. Now I have a better understanding, but I still try to get my Dad to talk about it - he only likes to tell the funny stories! Anyway thanks for mentioning that!

thamesarino said...

wow Christine, that was a beautiful, sad, and uplifting story! I cried thinking of how you all must have felt, but it does demonstrate what I think is great about America...that when push comes to shove we stand together. Thank you for sharing such a poignant reminder!
hope you're havign a good day! : )

Mama Goose said...

This is hauntingly beautiful.