Bearing witness

Sleeping soundly is not an easy thing to do when you live in town.  
When the telephone rang just after 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night five years ago, I was foggy from slumber.
The voice on the other end of the telephone line stressed the sense of urgency.
“There’s a fire downtown. Hurry,” said Treva Bennett, copy editor for The Northeast Georgian. “It’s on fire. I’m here.”
Grabbing my camera, eyeglasses and hustling into my shoes, I ran toward the shooting flames and copious clouds of smarting smoke.
My town was burning.
A firefighter met me at the corner on Bridge Street next to David Irvin’s automobile repair shop.
“Where are you going? Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m with the newspaper,” I replied.
That was my entry into the hellish night when the heart of our town skipped a beat. Wheeling around the corner and dodging fire engines, I was immediately torn.
To my right, the silhouette of my favorite restaurant lit the night sky in angry red relief.
To my left, restaurant owners Lee Hull and C.B. Henson sat slumped and weeping as they watched a hard-won dream disappear.
I went to work. Capturing the raw images with my camera alongside Treva, we methodically worked our way around the perimeter of the scene.
Others started showing up.
Newly minted city councilwoman Leigh Johnston and her husband Darrin.
My husband Bill, a downtown business owner and Clarkesville Main Street volunteer.
Mayor Terry Greene.
The Northeast Georgian Publisher Alan NeSmith.
Habersham County Commissioner Natalie Crawford.
Volunteer firefighter Melissa Henderson.
Property and building owners.
Mrs. Eureka Jackson and her son John Jackson stood on the opposite of the square watching and waiting to see if their historic building would remain standing in the path of the ferocious blaze.
So many others stood in shock.
All of us bearing witness.
We all know the facts. The fire started at Sweet Breads and jumped the alley to destroy or damage severely a stretch of historic buildings on the square. I witnessed the moment when the attention of the exhausted firefighters shifted from the source of the fire to the other buildings. The focus moved from what was obviously a complete loss to what could be saved.
It was astounding we didn’t lose more of the city’s calling card that night.
Thick firewalls, determined personnel and a little grace stood in the gap.
It was my responsibility to let the rest of the world know what happened to our downtown core.
We live in a 24-hour news cycle. At the time, I worked for The Northeast Georgian. After I confirmed the fire was contained and we had a few sourced details ready for release, I walked the short block home to post the breaking news.
One image of the hundreds collected that night, along with with the news story captured thousands of views.
Everyone felt our pain.
I awoke to the stench of scorched wood after just a few hours of unsettled sleep.
Returning to the square, tip-toeing through the soggy debris, I recorded reactions from both the Clarkesville and Habersham County fire chief, elected officials and business owners. In the daylight, I made more photographs to help us tell the stark story. Traveling the short distance to the newspaper office, I wrote three stories with the help and support of others in the newsroom.
That night seared my heart. It wasn’t the hardest story I ever had to write.
But it was one of the most personal because it was my town that burned.

Note: So much has changed March 5, 2014. Thanks to the vision and commitment of our city leaders, including the late Dr. Terry Greene, our downtown is experiencing a revival.
The economic engine of our downtown is revved up and roaring. I am grateful to live, work and play in a community that has given so much to me and my family.