The smell is the first thing that gets to you.
I still remember walking towards this place two months ago. The smell got me then, too. There's something unique about the smell of a fire. It… "lingers" isn't quite the right word. It's ever-present. Even when it seems to disappear, it doesn't hide so much as it recoils into the shifting wind, waiting to pounce.
There's an extent to which — with an uncontrolled structure fire like that one — the smoke is the fire. And the smell is the smoke. In one moment, it just lingers. In the next, it surrounds you, thick and inescapable. It is the fire, but also, it's the threat of the fire. The moments when it's barely noticeable are moments of uncertainty, because it's bound to return.
That smell is also the memory of the fire. Both of the event itself, as well as of what it consumed. It's a little funny that it's the literal remnants of what used to be, that bring me back to what it was like walking around in the dark, trying to stay out of the way, trying to understand what was happening, trying to gather enough puzzle pieces to assemble a meaningful story in the end.
But as a photojournalist, it's an unfamiliar feeling to return to the scene of a story. Usually, the aftermath is covered from afar: Doing research. Performing interviews. Trying to understand both the bigger picture and the more nuanced details, but never really retracing those original footsteps.
But it's useful. What can often seem mysterious or haunting or enchanting in the moment… it seems different when it's laid out, plain as day, after everything is over. It's like the difference between visiting someone in a hospital and viewing them at a funeral.
In the hospital, there's uncertainty. There's agency. There's a chance for the story to take an unexpected turn.
But in the daylight, it's clear:
The heart is gone.
Whatever light that used to be behind those eyes, whatever warmth that used to inhabit those bones, it's gone. Or maybe it's in some kind of afterlife, but either way, it's not here anymore. On the night of the fire, there was always the chance that something else would be left. That something more would survive. But today, it's a husk that will, in due time, return to the ground.
To ashes, as it were
Once what's done is done, life doesn't return completely to normal. It never will. It never does. But some semblance of normalcy always comes back.
The next day. The next month… year… are never exactly what came before, but they're also never completely different. That's one of the things that's so fascinating about revisiting the scene of an event: the place and the people are both transformed, but there's always some thread of connection. Of continuity. There's always some tendril of lingering smoke that can bring you right back to the beginning.