Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hindenburg Moment

When the report of the brush fire in the area of French Creek came in, I basically ignored it.

Brush fires happen almost every single day, I’ve learned. Throughout our coverage area, I’d say we get reports of at least two a day. And, 99 percent of the time, they turn into nothing.

But Monday was an anomaly. There were brushfires everywhere. There were probably at least ten in Montgomery County when we caught one reported in the area of Hopewell Furnace.

For whatever reason, our photographer Kevin Hoffman went out to see what was up. And when he got there, things were obviously worth a story.

That’s the set-up. If you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing, you know the story.

But the beauty of this medium is that I can tell you some of the things that made this such a unique moment in my life as a young reporter.

The 2100 block of St. Peters Road is the face of this fire for me. Around 9:30 p.m. Monday having watched the fire move steadily, monstrously eastward all day, I told my editor, Nancy March, who’d been evacuated earlier in the day from a different area, something that actually made her gasp.

“Those houses won’t be standing when I wake up tomorrow.”

Thankfully, I was wrong.

I’d driven through 2100 several times that day and, in the 9 months of covering fires I’ve got under my belt, I haven’t seen smoke that thick. It was like walls of slate between the trees, impenetrably thick. I thought about turning on my headlights a few different times.

The otherwise blue skies were darkened by the overhead smoke to the point that the few areas the sun’s rays got through, they looked a malevolent orange.

As I drove through, I saw families standing in their front yards, obviously discussing what their next move was. As I passed they’d briefly stare out at me with anguished faces.

I saw one woman stop her minivan on the street in front of her house then go tearing to the front door. Maybe she was getting a pet, maybe something else, but she was sprinting for whatever it was. Her van may not have even been in park.

It was all very unsettling and reminded me very much of Silent Hill.

Throughout the day, but especially in that area, I constantly checked my gas gauge. It was below a quarter of a tank and I wanted to keep monitoring it, not wanting to get stranded and have myself turn out like the people in this video.

Phone reception was terrible. Later in the day, as I was trying to give a report of what I had, I didn’t even get ten seconds into a call before my call dropped.

Joking to myself in the car, I said, “And that’s the last they ever heard from Frank.”

In that vein, though, I made sure not to let my mom know where I was. I knew she’d be less than happy about it.

Basically, she'd picture this, without the suit, and with more fire.

Later in the night, I was going out to a press conference in Union. After watching and breathing smoke all day, along the way on Route 724, I finally saw flames.

Up on the shadowy ridge, a ball of orange smoke hung over flickering flames. It was eery and beautiful. And perfect for video.

After the press conference, I pulled my car off the road and into a field somewhere in North Coventry. Climbing onto the trunk of my car, I stood and held up my Flipcam. It was too dark to get any usable footage, but it was such a raw moment in the night, balancing precariously in stark silence on the trunk, staring at the flickering, red lights that were obviously a roaring, raging inferno that I’m glad I did it.

I spent the rest of the night writing up the online version of the story and closed down the office around 1 a.m. I thought for a moment about sleeping in the office but realized I was so tired after 15 hours of work that I’d be useless the next day if I didn’t sleep in a bed.

On top of that, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

The following two days have been almost a blur. The fire is almost the only thing I’ve covered.

I more than doubled my Twitter following.

Monday, I started tweeting from the firefighters’ staging area because I couldn’t get anyone to confirm anything. So I just tweeted what I saw and what info I had. After a while, though, I stopped.

“F*** it,” I grumbled. “No one follows me anyway.”

When I returned to the office that night, my email was full of “…is now following” messages. Immediately, I tweeted about 7 new messages.

On top of that, I’m used to getting less than glowing feedback on the things I write. The internet can be a terrible place where people wish each other terrible things.

Most of that terrible lives here.

But today, I finally was able to slow down enough to check some things unrelated to the fire. And that included who mentioned me on Twitter.

One of the people that followed me simply said, “Be safe.”

It was from Monday when the fires were at their worst and when I was constantly checking my gas gauge.

It was the nicest thing anyone has ever used the internet to tell me on this job.

A representation of how tired I was by the time I checked that .

Sometimes, as a reporter, you’ll cover something that will for some reason make you think of something strange. The tenuous link between the thought and the event will make the thought somehow poignant.

While talking to Fire Information Officer Glenn Bell in French Creek’s office, I suddenly realized something.

“I’ve never been to French Creek before,” I said to him in the middle of the interview.

He smiled and I did too. Over his shoulder, smoke rose from the eastern edge of the park burning down.

Photo by Kevin Hoffman/The Mercury

I think every reporter dreams about what I call their “Hindenburg Moment.”

When the Hindenburg blew up over Lakehurst, N.J., Herbert Morrison caught it on the radio.

“Oh, the humanity,” is his line and it came while he watched the burning zeppelin crash to the ground. That event is synonymous with him and his emotion-filled voice. He described it in an honest human way and completely owned it.

For that, he’s immortal.

I’m not saying the wildfire still burning in the area of French Creek State Park is my Hindenburg Moment. I’m not saying I own it. I’m willing to bet TV is beating me out on it.

But I’ve never worked so hard and been so invested in an event like I have been with this brush fire over the past few days. And because of that, this is the closest to a Hindenburg Moment I’ve come to yet.


  1. Keep it up! I live down the road on other end of st peters road and you have been our eyes and ears for info. Many of my friends are the fire fighters and it's good to hear what they are they doing and about how the progress is going.

  2. I'd "follow" you anywhere Frank. Good post and good job on the coverage.

  3. Keep up the good work. Awesome coverage on the fires! We appreciate it!