Observations: When the news reporter becomes the news



Monday is a “hell or high water” day at the Observer.
It’s the day before we go to press. I’m pushing myself to get the paper ready to hit the presses bright and early on Tuesday.
I tell everyone I will not leave my desk for hell or high water.
But on Jan. 12, hell came. And when it arrived, it only took a beat before I stormed away from my desk and stormed out the door of the Observer.
My cellphone blasted out its ringtone around 4:20 p.m. on that day. Being a hell or high water day, I just silenced the annoyance. Then a ding came announcing that whoever called had just left a message. Out of curiosity, I listened to the recording.
That’s when hell made its presence known.
“Mike, get home. Your house is on fire. There are flames shooting out the windows.”
The world frozen. Hell froze over for that moment.
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “My house is on fire.”
I think I may have said something else as I pulled on my coat. But within a few beats of my thumping heart, I was in my car, heading home.
I was hoping my neighbor was being overly dramatic. I was hoping there was just a small cooking fire that was all talk and no action.
However, when I arrived on Redstone Hill Road where I live, it was much worse than I feared. There were fire trucks and police cruisers everywhere. I found a place to park a block away and ran the distance to my house, dodging firehoses, emergency equipment, my neighbors, and finally caution tape.
By the time I arrived, the flames had been beaten down by firefighters. But there was a plume of smoke coming from the shattered window of my downstairs neighbor. My front door was tilted on its hinges, my entrance inside exposed to the elements. My front window was gone.
“This is my place,” I said to no one in particular after I was asked to step away from the crime scene tape.
“Was there anyone else in the unit?” a police officer asked.
“Just my cat.”
My cat. Pesky. What happened to Pesky?
“We saw him running around upstairs so he should be okay.”
And after some drama and a good deal of patience and a godly amount of serendipity, I found Pesky.
Along the way, I was able to rescue some of my stuff from my house, which was now carpeted in broken glass, decorated with basketball size holes in the walls and ceilings, stunk of acrid smoke, and looked as if the armies of Genghis Khan had marched through its confines.
“You can’t stay here tonight,” one sympathetic officer told me. I was told by a firefighter later that the Red Cross would help me find somewhere to stay with Pesky… at least for a few nights.
That was the beginning of my adventure. It’s not the end of the adventure. But just a beginning as I have been told I’m probably going to be a gypsy for the next four months.
However, these words solely aren’t about the tragedy of the fire. This is also about a community coming together to help me.
Once Pesky was safe, and as I was watching firefighters and police officers work the scene (I learned my neighbor had passed away in the flames), I posted a message on Facebook.
It was just a rant to the universe, letting my fears go for a moment by voicing what was in my head.
“So folks my house went up in flames this afternoon thank god I found pesky my cat but now I’m homeless.”
It wasn’t particularly eloquent. The punctuation and grammar were un-editor-like. But it struck a chord as my friends on Facebook latched on to the ramifications of that statement.
Immediately, I heard from hundreds of people checking to see if I was okay and if Pesky was okay.
That night, all of a sudden a website was set up to collect donations to help me replace what was lost and get me back on my feet again. Sara O’Leary, a friend of mine in the community who set up the website, also organized a benefit at Marilyn’s on Broad Street in Bristol for the Friday after the blaze to help me out.
It was all a bit odd, I kept telling everyone who checked in with me. I’m typically the one writing or editing news stories about tragedies like this.
Now, however, I was the story…
To be continued next week.
Mike Chaiken is the editions editor for The Observer.

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