Photography and memory

Just last week I found myself scrolling through the 17,000 or so pictures Iíve taken for the newspaper over the last few years. I was looking for one taken in 2009 when a coworker and I responded to a natural gas well fire and explosion that injured two workers.

I was writing a story about how Chenangoís firemen were going to be receiving special gas well emergency training and the incident two years ago was a good example of exactly the kind of incidents they might be responding to.

Calling the memory from the back of my mind wasnít nearly a vivid as the images I recall on my computer. Looking through that dayís album brought back a number of nearly forgotten memories.

A former coworker, Jessica Lewis, and I were dispatched to the scene.

I can recall the hostility of the volunteer firemen; they did not expect to see press visiting the site, remotely located in the Town of Lebanon. I remember one exaggerating member telling us we all might die because the pipeline may explode and that it would safer if we left; besides, he informed us, no one would talk to us Ė though later the fire chief did and we survived to tell the tale.

Our effort to gather information was like swimming up stream. We didnít let that deter us. I tried calling the property owner of the well to get direct permission to walk across his land, despite officialsí concerns, but he was unavailable so we then tried the nearest neighbor.



We traveled to his home, about 400 yards away from the fire. He told us the explosion shook his house at just before dawn and woke up his family. He allowed me to walk to the top of a hill overlooking the distant site on the rear of his property. I debated climbing a rickety silo for a better view, but settled for the steep hill. Using a 300 mm lens from a distance of about 400 yards between the trees, I was able to capture the only image the paperís published since of an actual out-of-control gas fire. It burned and blackened nearby drilling equipment, which was abandoned in mid-operation after an explosion caused minor burns to the face and neck of two workers.

Photograph still carries a sense of satisfaction whenever I see it, including Fridayís reprint in The Evening Sun.

It wasnít the first time a lack of access to a scene had caused some photographic antics. I once arrived at a home where police had just executed a drug bust. As I pulled up, most of the officers went inside the house or moved to the backyard and I was told to stay along the front sidewalk. Again using a high powered lens and the consent of a nearby property owner, I was able to get to the rear of the building and snap several pictures of police rummaging through the home in full body armor.

Then one of the officers noticed my new, perfectly legal, position and seemed to raise alarm. A friendly local officer from the Norwich PD, which was one of the departments at the scene, came over and told me I had taken pictures of some out of the area undercover policemen. He asked me to delete the images and I obliged, though a few were still usable.

In general looking at the last few years of photography reminds me of all the moments that I havenít been able to capture, apart from my own memory.

I can vividly recall two murder trial guilty verdicts. The few seconds before such an announcement the room is so still and tense you could feel it washing over the entire crowd. Sitting from the press box Iíve witnessed the seconds after too, the tears and gasps from victimís family and defendants only a few feet away.

I watched the lumber yard in New Berlin burn just over a year ago, itís the biggest fire Iíve seen of the dozens Iíve responded to. The flames were three or four stories high and generated enough heat to warm a large area around it, despite the below freezing temperatures.

There has been a few darker experiences where Iíve had to view the dead. I remember a woman a hung herself in a public pavilion. She was about 30 but looked even younger with her flesh drained of most of its color. I remember the sheriff pulling a body out of the Chenango River, looking on from a bridge overpass as they took it from water.

But even those seemingly sad experiences have only help to broaden my appreciation and understanding of life. Itís a surprise to think I could find so much self discovery in my home town. Until I was hired at the newspaper, I had no idea so many different things happened here.

I certainly never expected to looking back at these kind of memories and I can only wonder what the next day might bring.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesuntyler

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