I was on my second or third date with my eventual ex-husband when one of the bigger stories of my 14-month tenure at The Chronicle (in Hoopeston, Ill.) flared. An entire city block in the neighboring town of Rossville caught fire, completely destroying storefronts and assorted apartments that were more than a century old. (If you've never heard of either town, they are about 45 minutes north of Danville, which sits along I-74 about 10 miles from the Indiana border.)

Firefighters from about 25 area departments collectively spent 12 hours trying to tame the fire and then babysat the rubble for another 21 hours to make sure the remaining hot spots didn't flare. When all was said and done, the fire took days to burn itself out.

The advantage to working for a weekly paper was that I had three or four days to write the story. The disadvantage was that my readers were small-town residents who surely had heard the best of the story before the paper came out. Oh, and did I mention, the "editorial staff" consisted of me, another full-time reporter, and two part-timers, one of whom was a high-school student?

So, after dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Champaign, Joe and I headed for the fire scene, which was swarming with random citizens taking photographs because this was the biggest fire the area had seen since a Hoopeston factory burned for six days in Sept. 1992. The news that Joe and I were dating also broke that night, because, you know, showing up at a fire scene with someone of the opposite gender was a clear sign of romantic involvement. (The next day, the radio DJ from Hoopeston's country station grilled me for details at the local bowling alley/bar and ended up shaking Joe's hand to congratulate him on our budding relationship, which I have to admit I did not yet consider a relationship after three or so dates.)

Anyhoo, here's the anecdotal lede I came up with for that week's paper (Wednesday, March 3, 2004, issue):

Joel Bird had the nozzle. Rich Birch had the hose. Dave Hamilton had the thermal imaging camera.

The three Hoopeston firefighters with air packs on went in the front of the pizza parlor as the Rossville firefighters attacked the fire from the back. The call had gone out a little past 7 p.m. Friday that a fire had started at the rear of 112 S. Chicago Road.

At around 7:45 p.m., there was little to see from the front.

"All we saw was smoke," Birch said. "We couldn't go forward. We couldn't turn left. We couldn't go right."

Hamilton couldn't pick up any heat with the thermal imaging camera. Bird said he could feel heat on his neck, Birch said, and then a "big ball of fire" rolled toward them. A wall fell toward Bird. Birch was thrown off his feet and out the door. The windows exploded.

"I don't know how far I flew, but everyone outside said it looked pretty cool," Birch said.

Believe it or not, that anecdotal lede led to a job offer at a start-up paper in Crawfordsville, Ind. (What?!, you say, newspapers were once starting, rather than disbanding? True story.) I turned down the offer to go be a business reporter in Anderson, Ind., where I helped cover a fire at a magnesium recycling plant that forced thousands to evacuate.
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