Wednesday, July 18, 2007

BEST OF: Line of duty drew tragically close

This column first ran four years ago, on July 20, 2003. Judges in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual Better Newspapers Contest gave it the best-writing award for that year.

It was the call every journalist dreads — an assignment to cover a story about a tragedy befalling a friend or family member.

The request from The Tribune’s assistant city editor was succinct: “We’ve had a report of a structure fire six miles up San Simeon Creek Road. Can you go?”

I know what’s up there, and the knowledge hit me like a pile driver someplace between my chest bone and my belly button. It had to be on the Warren compound, a grouping of ranch houses, barns and other buildings. I’ve known the Warrens — including my “acquired brother” Bill Warren — for more than three decades.

I didn’t tell my editor about my probable ties to the call, which came Thursday afternoon (July 17, 2003), or he never would have sent me. I went, although I’m not sure why. Maybe I thought I could help the family. Maybe I was praying for a magic wand to wave.“Let it be the barn,” I whispered. “Don’t let it be Grandma Florence,” Bill’s elderly mother.

Those gut-wrenching situations happen more frequently to firefighters, ambulance crews and law-enforcement officials, especially in small towns. Soldiers, too. I don’t know how they do it. They have my profound respect.

I don’t remember much about the drive up those six hilly miles, except I was following what turned out to be the first few fire trucks going to the scene.

As soon as I rounded the corner onto the creek road, I could see the smoke. It reminded me of another day nine years earlier, when I came over a different hill and saw my own home going up in flames. Only that time, thanks to a phone alert, I knew nobody had been hurt.

This time, the worst was yet to come. As I got to the crest of the hill, I saw it. Bill Warren’s house was engulfed in flames. I parked out of the way of the oncoming hordes of fire trucks and ran up the hill.

My knees held up somehow, but my heart sank. I knew how much pride Bill had in his “treasures,” the vast collection of antiques and paintings he’d stuffed into his tiny, Cold-War-era house. He might have gone back in to get them, or to try to snuff the fire.

I reached out for Tim, Bill’s partner of more than a quarter century, and we clung together for several minutes. He told me what he knew: Bill had been on the phone talking to Tim and said, “My house is on fire.”

By the time Tim arrived, he said, the house was engulfed in flames and he couldn’t get in because the blaze was so hot. But he and Mike Johnson, Bill’s nephew who lives on the property, tried anyway.

Tim and Mike were so, so afraid that Bill was still inside the house.

With no real way to help them or anybody else, I went to work, hiding my terror behind the lens of my camera and the scribbles on my reporter’s pad. Journalists are supposed to be able to separate themselves from the pain and anguish of those they cover.

Perhaps it was easier to deal with the pain with that professional buffer zone between me and it, rather than taking it all in, head on.

But focusing on the flames was tough, knowing what might be in the rubble. My thighs, shoulders and upper arms started to shake, and I had to brace myself against a handy fire truck before I could take the photos.

I shot frame after frame, knowing all the while that readers who’ve never been at a big fire can’t begin to sense the scene from the pictures that we photographers take. There are different shades of smoke that tell experienced firefighters what’s burning. There’s the overwhelming sight of the flames and the rushing sounds of the roaring fire, crumpling walls, exploding tanks or ammunition, the muted sobs of terrified family members, the screeching of pets or livestock.

And the smell, that awful, catch-in-the-throat stench that can forever stop you from lighting a fire in a fireplace.

It takes all the senses, with full peripheral vision and more, to absorb the horror.

I kept at it. I knew Bill would want me to. All ranchers know the work never stops, no matter what. Cattle must be fed and sold, fences mended, legal matters tended to. Ranchers deal with the cycle of life and death all the time, but not this way.

The same work ethic also applies to a reporter, especially a community journalist whose primary responsibility is to a small town’s newspaper with a small staff.

Oh, Billy. Where are you?

Bill Warren was the epitome of a gentle giant, a man I looked up to in many ways. In fact, one of my favorite photos of him shows 6-foot-5-inch Bill standing beside 5-foot-1-inch me with his elbow resting on the top of my head.

He was central casting for the long, tall, lanky rancher. With his dense mustache, the inevitable logo cap and his jeans-n-boots, he fit right in at a branding, at the sales yard in Templeton or on the range.

Photos I took of Bill in 1994 show his long legs almost dragging dirt as he rode his 15-hands-high horse. He could throw a calf or a bale of hay and then turn around and tenderly scoop up a wet, tiny lamb.

When his dad, Walter Warren, was dying, Bill became the father. He carried his Walter to bed, to the bathroom. He tended his parents mornings and nights, then tended family ranchlands during the day.

Bill was the third person I met when I moved to Cambria in 1971. He took my then young sons for their first horseback ride (another photo I treasure). He took us all for what became the legendary “Uncle Billy’s Wild Jeep Ride.” He became an embedded member of our family.

In fact, just before my mother died in 1988, she said she was leaving me in good hands — those of my husband, Richard, our sons and the three “brothers” I’d acquired in Cambria. Bill was one of them.

Later, Bill’s 90-year-old mother, Florence Warren, had her family and friends, who came to grieve with her and offer her support. But that day, she could only cry out as I held her, “Why did they take my son from me? What will I do? He’s the one who takes care of me.”

A neighbor in shock said later that “Bill was the consummate caretaker. He took care of all of us.”

Five hours after I arrived at the fire, I was at my office, trying to write what I’d seen and heard, what I’d been told and what they wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me. I could tell the investigators had their suspicions, but they weren’t confirming anything about Bill until forensic tests and other elements of the investigation are complete.

I like to think that when I took that assignment, and tried to tell his story, I was returning some of the caring Bill gave to me back to his family in his name.

But it’s an assignment that will haunt me, that will make me cry again and again, that will come to me in those dark-of-night dreams that leave me shaken and disoriented the next morning.

If I could turn back the clock, would I take the assignment again? Probably. Do I know why? No. Just call it my epitaph to a good man, to a good friend and my brother.

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