The girl was in a high state of distress. She skidded from one person to another on the dampening grass, confronting them, screaming at them. Her face was red and her eyes wild as the turmoil within her deepened by the moment. She looked everywhere for a show of support and found only blank faces. Nobody understood. How could they?

Few of us will have days this bad.

Behind her, the teenage girl’s home was on fire. The roof was burning and sections were falling into the living space, the space where she had spent her most significant time since childhood. Ahead of her were dozens of strangers, all standing and staring in mute fascination. They stood and held up cell phones or digital cameras, taking photo after photo of her home as it succumbed to flames.

“Why?” she screamed at them. “Why are you taking pictures?”

The insult to the girl was obvious. Most of the things that she cherished were being devoured by an ancient force that had leapt out of nowhere to claim what someone else had worked hard to possess. And while it was happening, these strangers had come to document the destruction in high resolution photographs as though this were a rock show or a monster truck rally.

Fire has been around for not thousands or millions of years, but billions. It has ruled the Earth since the planet churned out the precise ingredients necessary to make it easy to come by. Since he was a cave-dwelling creature with a massive forehead, man has run from it, craved it, come to need it and always feared it. Millions of years since primitive man discovered that fire could cook his meat as easily as it would singe his eyebrows, the love-fear relationship has flourished.

We are all grown up now and using our relationship with combustion to make bombs or build campfires. Fire levels cities or sits obediently atop a slim wick so that lust-crazed newlyweds can express their love on a bearskin rug.

Millions of years of co-existing and, yet, whenever a house burns anywhere, men, women and children will drop what they are doing and come to watch, as though they had never seen this phenomenon of fire. They are mesmerized by it and warmed by those ancient feelings of love and dread.

In my day, I have covered crashes and calamity, murders and mayhem of all varieties. You can perch a cat in a tree or a suicidal fellow at the top of a tall building, but those things will produce the magnet draw that calls people far and wide to the raw, hot power of fire.

A downtown inferno will bring out a thousand people within minutes. Parents will drive swiftly from another town so that their kids might get a chance to behold the spectacle of flames in untamed form, a cheap alternative to Disney this year. Get your hands on a blackened brick and that’s as good as a souvenir for the rug rats.

There is an element of schadenfreude in watching as a stranger’s home goes up in flames. The spectator will think: I’m sure glad that’s not my home and feel a guilty twinge of relief that fire has chosen someone else to victimize today.

As cruel as the dispassionate flames themselves is the manner in which others will treat the ruination of a home as a spectacle, so much cheap entertainment on an otherwise boring day. And that may be what the frantic girl sensed as she watched the crowd growing around her burning childhood home.

Losing everything to swift and arbitrary flames is as traumatizing a fate as any person will suffer. But on that afternoon, as the girl confronted one bland face after another, it was the callous thrill-seeking of strangers that really burned.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal crime reporter.


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