I’ve never been very good at breaking horrible news. I was always one of those people who would look straight ahead when everyone was rubbernecking at a bad accident on the highway, who would clamp my mouth shut and nod when fire chiefs told me they couldn’t tell me anything about what was going on behind those police barriers because the next of kin hadn’t been notified.
If I were them, I wouldn’t say much to the press either. We are a sorry lot of egomaniacs who just want to see our names in print.
Of course the next of kin are an awful lot more important in a disaster than journalists, more important than even the readers of newspapers. Maybe some readers of newspapers don’t like that, but I don’t think that’s true. Most of us are, at our core, decent people who figure that, when something horrible happens, if we can’t help, we should at least have the good sense to stay out of the way. And if something really horrible happens in our neighborhood, chances are we know a lot of the details before we read the newspaper, anyway.
All of that stuff becomes so much more complicated when you live in the community where you work, and where the subjects of your prying questions are real people, who are living full lives in your neighborhood, where the local politicians and their crazy families are the neighbors that you know all-too-well, without having to read about it in the local news. It’s what makes community journalism such a different animal from the Newsdays of the world.
Back a long time ago, before I was born, Steve Busch, who owns Liberty Data Systems in Mattituck, was the best man at my parents’ wedding. I never got to know him, but every time I rounded that curve in Mattituck, where his office used to be until this past Friday night, I’d smile to myself and think ‘the best man’s business is there.’
When I was a kid, we lived upstairs from the Mattituck Florist & Garden Shop, just down the street from Steve’s building, which was destroyed in a fire that killed one of his tenants Friday night. We would play in the woods behind his shop, climbing trees and looking out over the slate-shingled tudor building, which was an anomaly of architectural beauty in the heart of a town that isn’t exactly beautiful.
My sisters and I would dream that we lived in those apartments and had businesses in the front half of that building. Yes, it was in a horrible location, on the inside of a dangerous curve, but it seemed like a dreamy, wonderful place. Today it’s gone and a man is dead and many more people are having to sift through the pieces of their former lives.
I haven’t been writing much on this website this past week, and that’s because I’ve been out at the Suffolk County Fire Academy in Yaphank every day, training to become a volunteer firefighter. I’m very grateful that the Flanders Fire Department has taken me on as a probationary firefighter, despite the fact that I’m a recovering journalist. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll be able to make some amends for my previous life, and someday do something useful.
My class is learning an awful lot up in Yaphank, but one of the biggest things we hear almost every day is that the fire doesn’t know you’re a volunteer while it’s tearing through buildings and killing people. We’re learning how to do everything we can to keep people from dying. What we’re learning, more than anything else, is how to keep ourselves alive.
We can’t help anyone else if we’re not prepared to face the smoke and intense heat and physical exhaustion that comes with the job. When you sit back and think about the risks, it’s easy to wonder why anyone would volunteer for such a dangerous task. I think the reason is because we all need to know we are able to influence the world we live in for the better.
On a blackboard at the front of the class each day, there’s a quote from Winston Churchill, which we all look at as we listen to case studies of people who died in fires:
“To every man, there comes in his lifetime that special moment when he is tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a special thing, unique and fitted to his talents,” it reads. “What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for the work that would be his finest hour.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that Steve Busch and the police officer and fire chief who got to the scene just minutes after the call and tried to rescue Paul Mittleman from the fire were Best Men last Friday night. And there’s no doubt in my mind that an awful lot of brave volunteers gave their all to try to do what they could to make a horrible tragedy a little better for the people whose lives will be haunted by that night for years to come.
And that’s really all I have to say.