Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Tragedy in Durham 💥 The Fire This Time

On April 10th, a gas explosion destroyed a downtown block in Durham, killing two men, Kong Lee, owner of Kaffeinate, and Jay Rambeaut, utility worker, and injuring 25.  I ran to the scene as soon as I saw the smoke rising from where I stood on the patio of the Bakery.  I'm not sure why (maybe because I was at the WTC when 9/11 happened?), but I feel this urge to respond to danger when it's presented.  Also, I knew that if there was fire on that block of Duke Street, Kong or his son Raymond or customers might be trapped or hurt.  Kaffeinate had been one of our wholesale pastry customers and friends since they opened two years ago.  Once there, I put on blue latex gloves and helped Erik Nystrom (manager of the blue-shirted Downtown ambassadors of Durham) move several wounded people to safer positions away from the fire and broken glass and helped one injured lady try to get in touch with her mother.  One construction worker in particular was very badly lacerated over his entire body, barely able to walk, head bandaged, crying and shaken while a civilian woman held him close to her body and rocked him for comfort and tried to stop the bleeding.  I later took some videos of the fire, which I posted to the Bakery's Instagram story.  Once paramedics arrived and took control of the injured, I pushed back behind the yellow tape and began walking back to the Bakery, thinking whoever was in Kaffeinate at the time was likely dead.  I gathered our employees together in an office and explained what had happened.  We tried to push on with the day, but it was heavy and surreal.

My videos:



The next day I posted this memoriam to Instagram story and Facebook.


Sarah Krueger from WRAL posted this photo to her Instagram story.


How do you make sense of a bizarre and seemingly random event of massive destruction?  I learned later in the day that April 10th was the 150th anniversary of Durham's founding.  That triggered for me a lot of feelings I have had for some time about the contradictions of living in a city of great wealth and education and also a city of great stratification, poverty, and neglect.  As a recovering PhD candidate, I read historical events the way a literature expert deconstructs a novel or the way a psychoanalyst decodes a mysterious dream.  In this case, watching Mayor Steve Schewel stand helpless with his bowtie and jacket on and his hands in his pockets as the block burned, the meaning was clear as to why this calamitous event might align itself with Durham's sesquicentennial.  How could it be that we live in such a wealthy and prominent city with great academies of learning yet basic human safety net issues have remained unresolved for decades, if not longer.  It is not enough to pin it on the President, or Congress, or the Capitol in Raleigh.  We have a collective responsibility to help the poor, and when we are erecting massive structures and condos, handing out building permits, and stoking the fire of consumer capitalism in Durham, it is irresponsible to not work just as hard, and dedicate as many resources to helping the most needy.  What is the use of a 150th birthday party if only certain demographics get to celebrate?

A friend who had access watched the next day as the multi-million dollar antique Porsche collection stored next to Kaffeinate rolled out, many largely unscathed.  He said something about that didn't sit right with him, that wealth should be rolled out on a red carpet like that while death, injury, and destruction was still smoldering next door.  It hit me like a shot in the chest.  What do we Durhamites prize? Money? Wealth?  Or humanity?

After the explosion, many people donated to the many fundraisers that were set up to help the victims and those affected, expressing pride for the city's resilience under the hashtag #bullcitystrong.  I supported and re-posted these fundraisers on our Facebook.  But like the critics of the billion or so dollars pledged to rebuild the Notre Dame cathedral that burned only five days later (another strange coincidence), the question raised is how could there be so much money in the world when so many are without basic services like adequate safety and security, health care, education, food, and housing.

Consumer capitalist society has generated these contradictions of wealth, they are endemic to our society, and they are not likely to go away soon.

What we need right now is leadership.  Steve Schewel is possibly the best mayor Durham has ever had if you were to write a report card on him with regards to his liberal progressive values.  But watching him watch that fire, the man who always has the answer for everything was momentarily flummoxed.  At the 150th kickoff celebration three days later on the 13th, there was a moment of silence, but little else in terms of words that might console us or rally Durham from its mourning.

Tragedy, literal burning, is as symbolic an act as they come.  James Baldwin's book "The Fire Next Time" quotes the following lyric from the gospel spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep":

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!"


He extends this to say that if we fail to resolve the issue of (racial) inequality and injustice, our fate is with that of the condemned.  We have all the tools at our disposal to make these changes.  We just need the collective will.  One would hope that this fire wakes us up.  Or a hurricane.  Or ICE agents detaining innocents.  Or queers being banned from bathrooms.  I remain hopeful and committed to this work despite our blindness. We have a responsibility to a Rawlsian justice where all boats rise in times of plenty, not just the rich and well-connected.

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