The exchange is reminiscent of the way cinema imagines prisoners in the yard asking, “What are you in for?”
Replace stenciled orange jumpsuits with bulky thermal coveralls and knit beanies, and move the conversation indoors to a burned-out shell of a living room where yellow police tape is laced around a floor lamp and upholstered sofa, half buried beneath charred cellulose insulation that fell from a ceiling now open to a bright blue February sky. Here, guys jockey around debris with pencils behind ears and clipboards under arms, steam rising from coffee cups as we ask each other the standard introduction to a large fire investigation: “Who do you have?”
“I’ve got the carpenter,” I say. “Framed up the chimney.”
The fellow who asked me nods, sticks out a sooty hand and says, “I’ve got the masonry guy.” We throw around names of mutual associates until we know all our inter-company connections, then share a few war stories — fantastical accounts of our most spectacular claims or quirkiest homeowners. The conversation repeats itself a dozen times before the day is out. We try to stay warm and occupied while a story works to tell itself at the skilled hands of forensic experts.
We have already heard the story as told by eyewitnesses. Crowded into a chilly garage, 25 claim adjusters, attorneys, and engineers jotted notes on quadrille paper while the cold facts were recited off the report from the volunteer fire department of this sleepy town on the plains: How logs were added to the woodburner at 22:30 hours. How the smoke alarm woke the family of five from sleep at approximately 3:30. How dense smoke made it impossible to locate the young children until their voices were heard outside in the winter night, confirming everyone made it safely out of the home.
The story we need to hear now is how it happened. Its origin. Its cause. The ruins of a family’s home becomes a storyteller over the next eight hours; we wait out a confession from the culprit. Burn patterns in the attic tell us that’s where combustion occurred. Arc mapping conducted throughout the wiring system reveals the electrical events that could point to the origin like a good sequence of flashbacks. The fireplace and chimney are meticulously deconstructed, measured, photographed, and studied inch by inch for clues that will expose where the fire started, how and where it travelled, how quickly, and what it touched along the way.
I’m standing downstairs at the base of the fireplace pointing my camera up into the chimney when I see the black front of the microwave in the kitchen through the opening burned in the floor above me. As I focus and click, the young engineer to my right puts the base of his palm through the adjacent sheetrock to gain access to the interior. The wall is painted a trendy lime green. He knocks glass shelves to the ground with the force of his blow. The house will be razed within the week, but still I wince, wondering how many times the children had been told to be careful playing near those shelves. He pulls back his respirator and spits on the floor. I look away, trying to remember my dirty boots stand atop six inches of packed debris. The carpet isn’t carpet anymore.
An engineer rattles off framing clearances and says something about a technical violation, and three of them stand with their hands on their hips leaning parallel to the chimney and debate how far off level it is. They puzzle over how to remove the chimney in a single piece, which cannot be done. It will be taken to the lab for testing and to preserve along with other artifacts retained as evidence. But it’s twelve feet long, and the investigator has only an 8-foot trailer. He’ll have to cut it in two. The engineer I hired tells me he’s seen all he needs to see. He’s leaving to go to his hotel. He’ll be in touch.
I hesitate, sensing another story waiting to be told, one hidden from blueprints and tape measures. The hobby horse in the little girl’s room hangs helplessly by its plastic reins off her bookshelf. Sunlight pours in through the open roof, a bright printed bedspread covered with snow, debris speckling the horse’s fluffy pink mane. Here in the living room the young engineer spits on the floor again. A pink and yellow Barbie dress is wedged between the thick sole of his work boot and the blackened floor.