11 years ago I was at Wisdom House working an 11pm-11am shift when the planes hit the Twin Towers. One of my residents, Toni Ouellette came out and said to me, “It’s World War II all over again.” Those words have stuck w/me forever. But last year, on 9/11 another tragedy struck, a massive fire in Grand Isle/Lille. We lost a huge part of our history on both those occasions, but on one of them, I was there for it. Here is what I wrote the following day and posted it on Facebook.
I think I’ve been asked 100 times what happened on 9.11.11, how did the fire start, what did I see, so to go along with the pictures and the video, here is my account of what I saw, felt, heard and recorded. I fancy myself a writer, as many know, and thought that sometimes we see these things as something that happened and forget the human experience of it. I didn’t lose anything in the fire and I think I was an observer to the action, but if we don’t share that history (His. Story.) we lose things that are precious, memories and events. So, I want to record what I felt, saw, etc. Please feel free to share it, tag someone, comment, and share your own experiences in the comment section. I’m curious to see who says what, and if anyone reads it.
Most of us go along our daily lives, nodding hello to neighbors, not getting along with a few, rolling our eyes at others – avoiding some. It isn’t until something happens – you know that something – that devastating event that seems to just bring everyone together? From neighbors who hate one another, to businesses, to people passing by, to police officers and firefighters, you know – those events. The car accidents, the loved ones lost, the floods, the fires.
I’m lucky to have the people in my life that I do. My girlfriend, Julia, my family, her family, the very few people that I count as true, close friends who know my inner workings. We get along rather well. We take my mom to the NASCAR race and Brian, Julia’s young brother, has tagged along before, making for a nice blend of family. I consider Brian my other little brother, as I have known him almost half his life and he’s been a large part of my own. Yesterday, on that Sunday that Lille will never recover from, we went to get my trike, yes, one of those three-wheeler things that are dangerous, at my Uncle Reynold’s house. Now, Brian is friends with my Uncle and he does work for Brian on his ATV’s and such. As I said, I’m fortunate to have a wonderful family, well; at least most of them are wonderful. We stopped for gas, drove home and dragged the bike out of the back of the truck; unfortunately, it still isn’t running up to scuff. Brian looked up and said, “Holy, what is that?” Julia and I both looked up and dismissed the huge puff of cloud-white smoke. “Nothing, must be someone starting a bonfire,” I told him. But then, it didn’t stop, and the air changed. I don’t mean it physically changed, at least not yet, I mean, there was something in the air, it was heavy, pregnant with heat, maybe even with fear and danger. We tried to crank the trike one more time and I jogged up to get my 4-wheeler. I started it and pointed to Brian that I was going to check out what was happening since he’d managed to coax the trike into starting and was contemplating, I saw, doing a wheelie or three. The distance is only, I would say, less than an 1/8 of a mile. I drove quickly, faster than I usually do, but I knew – somewhere in my head and heart – I knew something was happening. The don’t let it be’s began in my head, but I knew that no matter where it was, it wasn’t going to end well.
I came around a stand of pine trees on Ricky Theriault’s land and my heart stopped, and when it started again, it was marching a double timed beat and hammered in my chest. I had the forethought of parking at the back of the cemetery and pulled out my phone. I didn’t want to be in the way, being in the way was bad and dangerous.
Now, I’m one of those annoying tech people, you know the ones that have a phone that says “Bless you” when you sneeze, can be used as a Wi-Fi hot spot, post things to Youtube, Twitter and Facebook in an instant. I took out my Droid and called 911 but I instantly heard the sirens wailing and hung up. I hit the camera button and began to snap photos. I like taking pictures, I’m even good at it. I instantly uploaded them to Facebook, but I forwent typing a title, as I figured I’d have time later to do that. It was just a barn fire after all. Before my next picture, someone had asked where this was. The amazing thing about social networking is there is always someone online, someone plugged in, via computer, phone, Android, Blackberry or iPhone. I answered one person, not sure I even typed the name of the place right. I continued to take pictures as I walked, I didn’t have time to answer questions, someone else would fill in the blanks. That was when I felt it.
There is no picture, however, that can convey the smell of the wood being consumed like a meal by the flame, or the scent that it leaves in your clothes, or the stain it leaves on your heart. Or the heat, the heat that I felt from the middle of the cemetary that made me think of the hottest days in Florida. Dry, moisture-raped air that fills your lungs and forces you to swallow repeatedly. Fire drinks. It drinks the air, it drinks the wood, material that it needs to live, to feed. It feeds until there is nothing left and just a carcass, a shell, remains.
I texted Julia, who, unike me, doesn’t have her phone super glued to her hand, then her brother Brian. But, Brian is a lot like me, he had already herded Julia into his truck and was standing at my side when I shot my first video, susequently posting it on Facebook (and later on YouTube to stave off the 200 new friends I had when I got home, all of them welcomed friends, but I did feel like the girl who had won the lottery or published a best selling novel). The firefighters arrived and the water looked like a stream of glorified air hitting the fire, it was already hell bent on burning down the 1st barn, was working on the 2nd and it would be darned if it wouldn’t take the house along with it. The wind whipped and with each gust, each burst and turn of the air, we felt the heat, rising, changing, telling us how close we could get and how far to stay.
Being human, I am, by nature, curious. I darted between the trees and saw the 2nd barn, which was old, fallen down and delapitated, already raging. I didn’t growl and roar like the other was, but it was mean, and kept low. A few trees had fought hard, but the wind, fuel to the fire, had taken them and they blazed too. Cedar embers dashed and darted in the air and was heading for the old house across the streeet as if on a mission to claim victim four. That old house, once an old folks home, with stained glassed windows and falling down roof, had been a friend of mine’s home, the Fontaine’s. Treena, Sreena, Logan and the lot were great people, I count Treena as one of those people who I could talk to even if we haven’t spoken in five years and have an easy friendship with, she’s the person who will send you a message when she finds out something bad has happened and offer help, and mean it. Her husband, Ryan, is the same. She’d lived there most of our friendship, and even if the place was a falling down wreck, it was still worth something – it was worth the memories.
The couragous firefighters were trying to keep the blaze from the abandoned yellow home that was also next door to the blaze, but on the same side of the street. Brian and Julia joined me and we saw, in horror, that the porch of the old falling down run of a building across the street, was smoking. It was a white, billow smoke that took its time heading upward and away from the old Fontaine place. Firefighters, still fighting the inferno to try and save the antique shop, scurried over with fire extinquesters and seemily doused the blaze.
Or so we all thought. Minutes later, Julia raised her hand and said, “Look, there is fire in the middle window.” At first, I thought she was wrong, that it was simply a reflection of the blaze where we were standing. But the windows of the house were much to grimy with age and road dust to cast such a bright and marvoulous reflection, instead it was the fire waving a hello to the world. The fire was already on the 2nd floor of the building.
Then the other towns began to arrive. One thing you can say about Northern Maine when you need help, it is there. People who lived on my street asking if anyone needed water, food, a shirt. Frenchie’s Variety arrived with food and drink. The owners of the home were given chairs to watch the beast lap at their home, taking it down lick by agonizing lick.
The blaze began, or at least, I took my 1st picture at 3:43pm. By 4:15pm I had taken picture of the back of the house, the other barn and the new flame that had begun at the old Fontaine place, the once old folks home. We made our way to Main Street, encountering neighbors, my brother, Lee and his girlfriend Victoria, who is like my other sister, I adore her that much. We stood and watched, the air was now thick, like we were looking through clouds, the wind would bring down one of these wood scented, fire burped clouds and fill our lungs with its misery.
My mom had called to make sure we were all right, and I told her we were, at almost 70 she is a rock, but she does worry, as every mother does. Security was becoming tigher, the EMS volenteers were doing a wonderful job and we darted across the street, where the True’s, the owners of the antique store were sitting.
I went home to get my other camera, knowing that a cell phone doesn’t take great pictures, well they do, but there is something about a nice heavy camera that is reassuring and safer. Once there, my friend, Lauri, who owns Cravings, a resteraunt in Grand Isle, where we were supposed to eat supper that night, caught me on my cell. I assured her we were okay, I mounted my 4-wheeler and headed back.
I crossed the street again and found Julia. We all watched the flames extending their fingers across the power lines and towards the Beaulieu residence in a come hither gesture as if inviting the building to lean over the street for a tender lovers kiss. The Beaulieu’s have lived there for as long as I can remember, and I’m 37, and grew up that vast expance of 1/8 of a mile that I had traveled less than an hour before to find the barn on fire. At his point the firefighters had held the flame back enough to get inside of the building and were pulling out antiques that had, so far, survived. The owners moved to see what was left, it was better than thinking about what was gone, to hold dear what was still there, instead of dwelling on what was gone and going.
My teacher, mentor, friend, Jan Grieco called around this time. She was worried, as any friend would be, but she isn’t a Facebook fanatic, but her daughter, Kasey, who was one of the 1st to post and ask if I was okay, was and had called and told Jan about the goings ons. We are the two Jan’s. I’m the other Jan, and she’s Jan. We met three, maybe four, years ago when I was strong armed into reading a short story in front of what I felt was 1000 people, in fact it was under 100. It was the best arm twisting of my life. We have since then forged a wonderful relationship and I count her daughter, Kasey, as one of my dear friends. She asked how it was going, if the church was in danger and how was I? Was everyone okay? The cell phone reception was spotty, but the concern was deep and it was real. I told Jan the church was fine, but I was worried about the Beaulieu house because the Fontaine residence had gone up so quickly and it was all cedars around it. I told her I was going to go down and around by the back, via the tracks to see if I could get a better look. Just in case. She signed off but not before telling me to keep posting and that she would call WAGM if they wanted the footage.
I hung up and went around the Beaulieu’s to get some wonderful shots of the firemen low to the ground, the sun orange against the smoke, battling the blaze. It’s one of those shots that is devesatingly beautiful because it *is* beautiful, composition, what it means, but devestating because of what is loss. I found Julia again and told her where I was going, human curiosity being what it is, and I went down a long sloping back yard and up into the Gevais’ back yard. They were in their yard, watching, praying that the fire was being contained, that their home wasn’t next. That the hunger of the flame might be staving, dying out. We talked, while I took pictures of the billowing smoke, almost pretty, decevingly gorgeous against the blue of the sky and the sun that was filtered through the smoke, making it a bright, almost charming orange. I saw a friend of mine, Ricky Theriault arrive and I made my way back across the street, darting in places I shouldn’t have been, elated at getting away with it. He had his machinery, Rick owns backhoes, payloaders, trucks, shovels, all those toys. I later learned that he had virtually flipped his truck in his hurry to get to the scene, knowing that every second counted.
Ricky is one of those guys. You know the ones, the ones that is always smiling, always with great humor, always working and always, always the guy who says, “Yeah, I can do that for you.” And do he did. The burning former Fontaine residence didn’t look very menacing, just a few casual licks of flaming fingers poked out between broken boards and shattered windows. I took pictures, I recorded. It was important, a large slice of history was being chewed away before us. When the bucket hit the wall the 1st time a peek of the monster inside glared, the 2nd and 3rd revealed him, angry at being found before being able to damage more, to eat more, to destroy. Ricky gallently, and I don’t say this to make him seem like a knight in shining armor, I say this because all that stood between him and that flame was a single pane of glass and good luck. The machine bucked and crawled into the building, lifting, breaking, revealing. The water began to beat back the flames, and I can only image what it was like for Ricky.
Ricky had no mercy. He had an agenda and knowing Ricky he wasn’t stopping until he was done. He didn’t want the fire to spread to the other homes, into those cedar trees that were allies to the fire, carrying it to buildings and rooftops in winking delight. It was growing dark by then and Julia had gone home with Brian, hungry, tired, releived it wasn’t our house. That’s one resounding thread I heard from 4pm to 930pm last night, “I’m so sad for them, it could have been me.” I thought the same thing as Ricky emerged from the front of the house and set his sights on the back end. Later, in talking to Ricky, he revealed that the chimeny had fallen and he’d been rewarded with a lap full of bricks. That window, that glass that was his only protection, had been taken away from him, but his good luck remained, and he’d continued to fight the wood and give the surrounding homes a fighting chance.
My phone at this point, the life line, the source, the thing that seemed to have made me oh so popular, was dying. The power was out and I headed home to a dark house, my girlfriend, and Brian. I went to my car, and did what I never do, started it and let it idle. I plugged my cell phone in, turned it into a wireless hub and connected my laptop. In the darkness of the car my smoke filled clothes poked at my nose and the bright glare of the computer played like firelight in my windows. I uploaded close to 200 pictures of the fire that I’d taken with my Canon Rebel, a gift from the woman I love. I answered the what felt like hundreds of messages on Facebook, and even a few emails when the lights came on. I finished what I was doing and we all sat in the living room, looking at the pictures, reading the comments, and letting the adrenaline of the day ebb away.
Brian left, the road not opening until 9 when I got a message from Victoria to go make sure that my brother, Lee, who had stayed to assist Ricky if he could, had eaten. I packed a peaunut butter and Jelly sandwhich and an orange soda (don’t judge) and headed back over there on 4-wheeler. His car was gone and before I could message Victoria, she’d messaged me that he was at my mother’s, eating and safe. I milled around for a while, mostly all that was left doing the same thing I was were fire fighters and EMS workers. A friend, Laura, whose husband, Corey had asked me via Facebook if I’d seen him and I hadn’t. In talking to Peter Laplante and Tonya Corvieau I found out that no one had been hurt, then I saw Corey and jokingly told him I was going home, right now, to message his wife. He smiled and told me she would be relieved to know he was okay, and she was. I went home to a safe bed, a person who loves me and went to sleep. My day ended but the firefighters and EMS workers were there until late in the night and were back again this morning.
The impact of a fire spreads like it’s flames, touching many more people than imaginable. What impacted me the most was the loss of history in those buildings, the loss of people who dwelled there, just a loss. On MemoryMaine.com there are several old photoes of those buildings, those exact buildings with their intricate wood work, and slat wood boards, the angles giving off tricky shadows in the black and white photos. We lost people who lived in Lille, ran a business there, loved their lives there. We lost four buildings. What we gained, oddly enough, is a sense of community. I spoke to people I haven’t seen in weeks, months, even years! I met new friends, who promtly added me to their Facebook list to see the stunning photos of devestation there. Catastrophes often bring people together – for a short time at least. Then we go back into our own worlds or bills, relationships, handheld devices that can let you talk to someone across the pond, but does it really keep you in close contact? It does, to an extent, but real life, reality, not that fake stuff on MTV, which is suppose to play music, by the way, but life is the touch of a hand, a smile, a kind voice and the knowledge that when you need them, your friends will be there.
9.11.12 – The lot now stands vacant, and the old Fontaine house is gone, reduced to salvaged wood and a gaping hole where the cellar once was. I preferred the run down house to the void.
Video (in order of upload – some not all are here)