By Ron Prichard
The thing was, Jimmy always got to the fire first.
He was one of those photojournalists with news in his blood who could only see straight through a viewfinder. You’d never see him without at least a Leica rangefinder camera around his neck and a police scanner on his belt, just in case.
You’d also never see him hanging around the office. He was either out on assignment or in the darkroom. Should have been famous, someone like Margaret Bourke-White or Robert Doisneau, who took the sailor-kissing-nurse photo at the end of WWII. But in a shrinking profession, greatness was hard to achieve and even harder to get noticed.
I met Jimmy — James H. Olzewski was his credit, though he, of course, got saddled with a Jimmy Olsen nickname into his 30s — when I was working the news desk for a string of newspapers up north of New York City, a dozen different nameplates, some of them going back to the days of Sleepy Hollow. was usually working on Page 1, which meant trading out a couple of stories and the big photo for each of those town editions. It was one of the many nights when one or two of the plans didn’t work out, so we were scrambling. Mamaroneck is kind of interested in Peekskill news, or something like that.
Jimmy called Mac Jefferies, one of our managing editors, to tell him he was at a warehouse fire in one of the ‘burbs we covered. He could be back in an hour. “You have flames? We’ll wait for flames,” Mac told him.
Now, that was around 8 p.m. This made me nervous, because I was the one who was going to catch hell if something didn’t get done in time.
He finally rolled in at a quarter to 10, his face smudged with ash and smelling of smoke. As I recall, we had until 11:30 to send the page to press, and in those days there was time burned developing a negative, burning a print, then sending it to processing and paste-up.
Still, Mac didn’t seem too concerned; he’d been here before, and he knew Jimmy liked to push it. And he was a newsman, not one of the bottom-line business-educated corporate functionaries who were starting to run papers even then.
“Don’t worry,” Mac told me during the wait. “Jimmy will come back and he’ll have the shot. Jimmy always gets to the fire first.”
That’s what would stick with me over the next year and a half, as Jimmy became a hero. And later a suspect. It sticks with me even now, years later.
That night, I introduced myself and followed him to the blackout door to the darkroom. Jimmy was a little guy, maybe 5’8, and skinny on top of it. His short blond hair was too spiky for a guy in his early 30s, but his intense coal grey eyes made you take him seriously. “It’s horizontal, worth four columns,” he told me.
I went back to the layout terminal and made room on my page. I won’t go into the technicals, which were pretty primitive then. But we made deadline. And it was a freaking beautiful shot, with the firefighters just rolling out the hoses in front of a fully involved plastics factory as flames leaped high into the night air. He’d beaten them there by three minutes. That was his thing; he always got to the fire first.
We went out for a beer afterward with a few coworkers and I got to know Jimmy a little bit. Over the next few months, he became a pretty good friend.
See, I was from California by way of three other states, paper-hopping while I tried to make a name and get to a major. So I didn’t really know anyone in New York.
Jimmy had grown up in Boston, so he was closer to home but still far away. And we both worked a lot of nights; male friends were generally done with their nights out by the time we got off work, and few women had the patience to put up with our schedules.
We’d both been high school loners, and about the time I’d picked up a pen, he’d grabbed a camera. Found he could talk to anyone and join any party if he had his camera in his hands. The athletes liked him, the cheerleaders liked him. Everybody’s mascot.
His father had been a firefighter, so he was fascinated with flames. He was too small to pass the test for the municipal department, so he bought a police/fire band scanner and started shooting. He worked as a stringer for a half-dozen papers to get himself through college, and he was good enough to eke out a living doing that until he actually had a degree.
A half dozen years before I met him he’d come down to New York for this full-time gig, though it ended up not being all that different. His office was his company car, and he zipped into the newsroom between assignments only to develop film. He knew the local firefighters – many of them volunteers – better than most of his newspaper co-workers since reporters did a lot of their work by phone.
What happened one April was bound to happen sooner or later. It was dusk and rush hour was still on. The call was a four-alarm blaze, fully involved house fire on a residential street in Ossining. And Jimmy got to the fire first.
He parked a ways away to leave room in front of the house for the fire engines and ran up the sidewalk, his Nikon around his neck and his heavy camera bag at his side. Structure one, as they put it in the reports, was a goner. The flames had spread through the trees to the house next door, and the porch in front of that one was burning fast.
The houses were close, and the back of the second unit was on fire, too.
On the scanner, he heard fire department chatter. The responding engines were stuck in traffic; two more were dispatched from across town.
He was shooting in the gap between houses when he saw it and heard it. A side curtain moving in the second house, a small face inside. The eyes saw him. A voice yelled help, or so he said later, though that may have been his imagination.
And Jimmy did something that would have made his father proud. His father the firefighter, who’d always been a little disappointed Jimmy hadn’t followed in his footsteps. In those days, where Jimmy grew up, that was still something people expected. Never mind that it was dad’s DNA that didn’t grow Jimmy high enough to make the cut. “So you’d rather be a watcher than a doer?” he’d asked Jimmy more than once.
Jimmy left his camera bag on the sidewalk, hopped a little chain-link fence and went to the side of the house. The heat between the two burning buildings was something he could taste; the smoke was thick and getting thicker.
He didn’t see the face anymore, but he went to the window where he was sure he’d seen it. It was too high, high enough that he could barely touch it. But there were trash cans nearby so he pulled one over, a silver metal one with a secure lid. He stepped up onto it, looked inside and pounded on the glass.
The surface was hot to the touch. In the smoky air, he could see nothing inside at first. He coughed hard then coughed again, and bent down to try to get below the smoke. He pulled off his jacket and held it to his face.
Then the curtain moved. Not one but two faces inside, small and scared. He tried to push the window up, but it wouldn’t budge. Stand back, he yelled, but with the popping of the flames, they couldn’t hear him. He signaled for the kids to get back, covered his head as he wanted them to do. And they did drop down.
He had nothing to break the window with, or rather, just one thing. “The newspaper will probably make me pay for this,” he thought as he smashed his F6 through the glass.
The next day Jimmy was the headline. Because he got to the fire first.
For the next couple of months, I didn’t see Jimmy much. He was too busy to work many nights. Beyond the fire departments and the various press associations, every social club wanted him in to speak and accept an award or a key or some such thing.
He also squeezed in a couple of job interviews at the Daily News and one at the Times, though as far as I know, he never got an answer.
But he got what he’d really always wanted. Tarrington, where he’d been living, had a little volunteer fire department. And they waived the height requirement and approved him for training.
I remember when they announced it, and I actually went to the ceremony and wrote a little news brief. Met the chief, guy named Robert Darnell. “You’re not going to be sorry,” I told him. “Jimmy’s a solid guy. And he always gets to the fire first.”
Still, it wasn’t going to be easy for Jimmy to make it. He was maybe 130 pounds and not exactly an athlete. A light work schedule was good because he started spending every day at the fire station. Apart from the equipment training, they had a workout room — several sets of free weights, none of that machine junk.
Over three months, he packed on 20 pounds of muscle. All those honors provided a lot of incentive; so did his suddenly encouraging father up in Boston. And there was another reason.
Her name was Karen, and she was the lone female trainee at that time. She was 2 inches taller than Jimmy, with long auburn hair and deep brown eyes. She was an avid runner, but skinny, too. And they both had a problem with one key test, dragging a body-heavy weight up and over a walk of stairs and then down a 25-yard course.
So they took to training together, and eating together, and eventually to sleeping together.
He told me about this all one night late that year, when he’d brought in photos from a two-car freeway fatal. Actually a car and motorcycle, and a nasty one. We ran a shot of police lights and the crushed cycle. The official location was between exit 38 and 40. And after a slide like that, there wasn’t much left of the rider you could show in a family newspaper.
Sorry. Tell these stories often enough, you get immune to the morbid.
Anyway, Jimmy and I went out for a beer that night and he brought me up to date. “I’ve been trying to get day assignments off the desk, and keep the scanner off at night,” he told me. “Karen’s so cool. But being alone too many nights, it’s tough.”
His final test was coming up fast, and he was doing well. He’d been somewhat of an outsider at first — like Karen, most of the recruits were in their early 20s, and many had played on the same school teams — but now he was regularly invited to the get-togethers because he was tough and with her.
He often missed the parties because of work, of course. But on weekends, they’d clean the engines until they sparkled and then barbecue at the stationhouse between calls.
It was a weekend day when they held the ceremony, with lots of crisp suits and lots of congratulations. Jimmy was not the same guy. You can’t build height, but he was built like a fireplug now; you could see the sinews in his forearms as he gripped the official plaque.
I went, and I remember the chief calling him out especially. He’d gone on more calls during the training period than any other recruit. I was not surprised.
It wasn’t all happy that day, though. He called me late, said he needed a drink.
She’d broken up with him.
We had one more drinking session after that, and then I didn’t see Jimmy much. He’d worked his last night shift, taking a job days at a photo studio. “I want to go on calls more than shoot,” he said. “And I want to get her back.”
See, he saw her a lot — on calls, at evening gatherings, on weekends. That’s tough when you’re in love, and especially when you’re new at it. And even at 31, Jimmy was pretty new to it.
It wasn’t stalking, really. He had to see her. But when you see someone that often, I think, it’s easy to believe what you had can come back. Every civil smile strikes you as a ray of hope. And hell, it wasn’t my business to warn him off it.
That’s what I tell myself, that’s what I blame, when I think there’s something I need to blame myself for.
It was March when the tragedy happened. And it was late one night, actually early one morning. We heard the call after deadline, and it was on my way home, so I said I’d stop by.
One structure gone. One dead.
I was glad I had when I saw Jimmy’s 4-runner just in front of the burned-out house, surrounded by fire engines and paramedic units. I approached the house first and found the captain out front blocking the way of two reporters. I was the third.
He wasn’t saying much, but combined with the pain of his face, it was enough. “It’s a complete loss. And worse, one death. One of our own got here early, and it looks like she went in looking for residents. That’s all we know.”
She. That was Karen.
I found Jimmy sitting on the back gate of one of the paramedic units, taking oxygen. He smelled of smoke, just like the night I’d first met him. He was on the brink of tears. “I tried to help her, tried to make it right,” he told. “But now she’s gone.”
I hung for a while. Two men pulled me aside to talk to me as night turned into morning, a police detective and a fire investigator. They asked me about the breakup and how Jimmy had been. I told them what little I knew; sure, it had hurt him, and he’d thought taking a new job might win her back, and it hadn’t.
But he loved being firefighter and hey, he’d find another woman with that uniform in his closet, right?
I asked if he was in trouble, and they were careful not to say much more than “it’s procedure.”
I had our police and fire reporter pull the reports when they came in, so I knew the story.
The call was in a fairly distant part of the city, hard to reach down curving roads. She’d arrived first, parked around the block, and found the structure burning hot. It was worse than it probably looked from outside; the flames started in an attic space and burned down. It was hotter inside than out.
She had gone in and was in a first-floor stairwell when the roof caved in. She sustained head injuries, enough to lose consciousness. Then the smoke and fire did their work.
Jimmy had arrived second and found the structure fully involved. Neighbors were out by then, and told him the family that lived there was out of town. So he focused on getting set up for the engines and policing the perimeter, making sure the fire wouldn’t spread. With Karen’s car around the corner, he had no reason to think anyone was inside.
It made sense. “So why the questions?” I had asked the investigators.
“Really, just procedure,” one of them had told me. “It is odd she didn’t call in to say she was on scene and entering the home. It was, though, the first time she was the first to arrive, as far as we can tell. A rookie lapse.”
I only saw Jimmy a couple of times after that, and only in passing. The first was about a month after the fatal fire, and I could tell he was broken up by it. He’d come to the paper to try to get his shooter’s job back. But the headcount had been cut from the budget; that’s how our chosen profession works.
The next time was three months after, and he was back at the fire station, a volunteer going on calls again. But he hated studio work — “I might as well be shooting at Sears,” he said – and the firefighters eyed him suspiciously. He’d failed, or was it worse? “I don’t know what they think I did,” he told me.
That worried me. Then a few weeks later, he popped into the bar some of us frequented after deadlines on Friday nights. “I got a shooting job in Santa Barbara,” he told me. “Off to try something new.”
And that would have been it. I’m not good at staying in touch, and he wanted to forget.
Except that one evening, Chief Darnell of Tarrington called and asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee. Wasn’t sure why, but I said yes.
The next day, in a little diner in an old rail car, he quizzed me about my friend. I told him most of what I’ve told you. And I asked why he was asking.
“I wish I knew,” he said. “Maybe it’s just that I’ve only lost two firefighters in 20 years. And she’s the first woman.”
“I’d like to help,” I told him. “But you have to tell me more than the investigators did. What do you think happened?”
“It’s just that I trained them both. They were smart. She doesn’t go in there without someone else on the scene unless she knows someone is trapped inside. And then she lets us know. Maybe she uses oxygen; it was in her car. And there were the cars.”
“She parked around the block. OK. But he parked right in front. He always parked a few houses away from the scene, to let the engines get in. He’d been doing that for years.”
I just shrugged. Not much to go on.
“The thing is, what if?” the chief said. “I mean, the story we have makes perfect sense. She gets to the fire first. Goes in, and the roof caves in. It certainly could have knocked her out, and then the smoke claims her. He arrives, doesn’t know, and waits for backup.
“But what if she didn’t get there first, or didn’t arrive alone? Could it have happened another way? Maybe she had help getting in, from someone who got out. Someone who didn’t want her to get out.”
I can’t help you with that, I told him. It was true. Hell, it’s still true.
There is one thing, though, I didn’t tell him. I mean, I didn’t know anything. Wouldn’t have wanted to get Jimmy into trouble with something I didn’t know.
But that thing sticks with me to this day. Wakes me at night sometimes, and I need a good whiskey to get back to sleep.
The thing is, Jimmy always got to the fire first.