I was sleeping soundly Tuesday morning, Feb. 25 when my wife, Celeste, a reporter at the Echo Press, woke me up around 6 a.m.
Still groggy, I was only able to make sense of a few words: “Bad fire. Broadway closed. Going to take photos. Talk soon.”
I had her repeat everything slowly before she took off. There was no sleeping after that.
Now wide awake, I got up, went to our computer room, read what Celeste had already put on the newspaper website, sent out an email letting everyone in our office know that we were looking into what was happening on Broadway, and then waited for Celeste to get more info.
I didn’t have to wait long. She sent me a photo within minutes showing how bad it was.
For the next couple of hours, Celeste and our editor, Ross Evavold, kept sending me updates from the scenes – which buildings were affected, which roads were closed, how local businesses were providing the firefighters with food and hot coffee, new fire departments that were called in, the challenges firefighters faced in getting to the hot spots in false ceilings and voids in the buildings, and other scraps of news.
As soon as I got the new information, I, still in my pajamas at home, added it to the story. As it turned out, we updated the story nearly 40 times that day.
It was also press morning, which meant we had to get the story and photos all ready to go for Wednesday’s paper no later than 8:30 a.m. Working together, we made the deadline.
I don’t know if readers realize the teamwork it takes to cover such an event. Besides Celeste and Ross reporting on the scene, Lowell Anderson, our photographer extraordinaire, captured the tragedy with hundreds of photos. Reporter Karen Tolkkinnen, who has a knack for connecting with everyday people, interviewed some of the 20 residents who lived in the upstairs apartments and did a story about their harrowing experiences.
Our advertising team also played a key role, giving us names and contact information of the businesses that were impacted, and offering different angles for the story. Others in the office provided helpful info as well.
So when readers see a byline on a story, they should know that many others may have had a hand in the process that goes into putting it together.
Reporting on such a massive, breaking news story as this was heart-wrenching. We knew the businesses, of course. We knew how much pride Alexandria takes in having a beautiful historic downtown district. But within the space of just a few hours, a big chunk of it was gone. For me, reality set in when I saw the photos of the backhoes ripping into the buildings that have stood for more than a century.
I thought about all the good times I’ve had at Raapers Eatery and Ale over the years, from surprise birthday parties and employee send-offs, to celebrating a friend’s moving day or just stopping in for happy hour after a hectic day at work. I’ll miss that.
But I’m also confident that the businesses that decide to rebuild or reopen will have the full support of the community. We’re blessed to have a community that truly cares, a community that has made comebacks before – from devastating fires and tornadoes to economic downturns and major reconstruction projects.
Within hours after news of the fire spread, a popular meme on Facebook began circulating, showing an image of the ruined buildings with the words “Alexandria Strong.” That’s what we need to be right now. Let the comeback begin.
"It's Our Turn" is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.