A day in the life of a small town reporter

Melissa Stagnaro

Since my coverage area is firmly rooted in the Southern most provinces of Chenango County, it’s not often that I venture north. But on Friday, I did just that, making my way to the Earlville Opera House to address a group of the non-profit’s “Roving Reporters.”

Unfortunately, I was held up at the office, and was therefore a few minute late for my designated 15 minutes with these intrepid young people, who were eager to ask questions about what life is like as an real-life reporter. (Really, they were.)

So instead of launching into my carefully prepared talk on the ins and outs of being a small town reporter, I decided to start with a caveat about how, no matter how meticulously you plan your day, a reporter always have to be prepared to drop everything to pursue a breaking story or whatever else may arise.

What held me up fell solidly into the latter category, relating to my need to do our web update in Jeff’s absence that day. But they didn’t need to know that. I figured it was better to leave them with some illusions as to the glamour of my position. Rather than bore them with the all-too school board meeting-laden reality.

That’s okay, the students’ chaperone (Jacque Roys, who originally hails from Oxford) told me, explaining that the kids had spent the time watching the fire trucks go by, and speculating about their destination.

Hmmm, I thought, fire trucks. As the students – who were all members of the Oriskany Falls summer rec program – began to pepper me with questions, I tucked that little tidbit away for later. We talked about “beats” and “bylines,” and lots of other newspaper-related topics in the remainder of our time together, which passed entirely too quickly for me to impart all of my pre-rehearsed words of wisdom with them. All too soon they were being ushered away by EOH’s unflappable and thoroughly wonderful executive director, Patti Lockwood-Blais.

As I hiked back to my car (my late arrival meant I had to park about a half a mile away), visions of those fire trucks danced in my head. Sure, I contemplated returning directly to the office, but it was short-lived. After climbing behind the wheel I headed, not back to 12B, but East in the direction I’d been told the fire crews had gone.

I didn’t have to go far before I encountered a member of Earlville’s fire police directing traffic away from Borden Road. I introduced myself, and after a few moments spent trying to raise the chief on the radio the kind gentleman waived me through with instructions to seek out Earlville Fire Chief Bob Tracy on the scene.

A mile or so up the road, I found the Chief and the Earlville squad, stationed in front of a soot-stained farm house, watching as other volunteer firefighters worked at removing the tin roof from the structure. Many had been there since shortly after 6:30 a.m., when the fire was first reported, and most were in sweaty t-shirts, with their fire gear pooled around their ankles.

In the skirt, blouse and wedge sandals I’d worn to address the kiddies, I felt more than a little overdressed.

Chief Tracy didn’t hold that against me though. In a matter of minutes, he updated me on the situation. The Madison County fire investigator had already visited the scene, he said, and determined it to be electrical in nature and linked to the brownout which had deprived the area of power for several hours the night before. While the front of the house appeared largely untouched by the flames, the interior was totaled, he explained.

“If you had your fire gear, I’d take you inside,” he added, with a pointed look at my footwear.

“I don’t have any fire gear,” I admitted, with an aw-shucks shrug of my shoulders. Ardently wishing for a moment that I did have such a thing stashed away in my trunk, for just such an occasion.

“We could lend you some,” he said, eyes smiling.

Not wanting to appear over-eager, I suppressed my desire to jump up and down with glee.

A few minutes later, I was sliding my feet into the size 12’s only recently vacated by Mike Doyle, the young Earlville firefighter who so generously volunteered his gear.

Of course, I did this only after ascertaining that he had no foot fungus I should be aware of. And tried hard to ignore the fact that they were still warm from their previous occupant.

While I was able to accomplish the boots on my own, I required assistance with getting the pants properly secured and donning the coat, say nothing of the helmet.

Once I was suited up, I allowed them a hearty laugh – and a photo for posterity’s sake – before heading inside with my two escorts: Captain John Fontaine and Jill King. One stayed ahead of me, the other behind, the entire time, making sure I didn’t take any false steps.

Even getting into the house was a challenge. The steps were wet and slippery with soot, and let me tell you, it was tough maneuvering in those size 12’s. There was also the weight of the pants, coat and helmet to contend with. Not to mention the heat. Thankfully, Friday was a bit cooler than the rest of the week. And I knew I was getting off easy, since I wasn’t also loaded up with all of the equipment these guys normally carry into a fire.

We entered into the kitchen, which even though virtually unscathed by the blaze itself, was still a scene of devastation. Soot was smeared across every surface, the walls smoke stained and water pooled on the floors. It was worse in the living room, which was directly below the room where the fire had started. Here, the water damage was more severe and part of the ceiling was gone.

Next we entered the narrow stairwell, and mounted even slipperier steps as we made our way to the second floor. The wall that greeted us was so black, I couldn’t tell what color it had been before the blaze. Hanging before it was a hunk of melted plastic John informed me was the smoke detector. Behind it, mounted to the wall, was another melted hunk, which looked to have one time been an iron.

As we exited the stairwell, we looked straight into what had once been a child’s room. As I stared at the blackened bunk beds, I said a silent prayer of thanks that the three kids who had lived in the house were away for the summer and far, far away that morning.

I said another prayer when we rounded the corner and the upstairs bedroom where the blaze had started came into view. Thank God they woke up in time to get out.

I’m sure I was chattering away nervously the entire time we were in the house, oohing and aahing as I felt I was expected to. But I was truly shaken by the experience. Seeing the true extent of the damage wrought by those flames was something I’m not sure I was prepared for.

When, after exiting the house and removing my borrowed gear, I met the two tenants who were asleep when the fire started, I was almost at a loss for words. Smelling of soot and having just seen the devastation they would face as they tried to salvage their home, my questions sounded flat and incomprehensible even to my own ears.

But I sucked it up, and did my job. Because it is telling stories such as theirs, and the responders on the scene, which make this job worthwhile for me.

My heart felt condolences go out to Jen Brown and Carrie Hartz for the devastating loss they suffered in Friday’s fire. May they find comfort in the fact that no one was harmed in that horrible blaze.

And I must, again, express my heartfelt gratitude to the Earlville Fire Department, not only for giving me the opportunity to walk in their shoes for a brief moment, but for all that they – and all those in the volunteer fire service do – to help area residents in their hour of need.

I spent some time in the Norwich Fire House this weekend, helping out during registration for the Gus Macker tournament. There is an inscription over the doorway leading to the bays where the fire trucks are stored, which I always pause to read.

It says: “Through these doors pass God’s greatest guardian angels.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Follow me on Twitter … @evesunmelissa.