Monday morning started with chatter on the emergency scanner about a house fire.
I grabbed my camera phone and notepad, thinking this would be routine: one or two fire engines, an ambulance, a few lookie-loos. At best.
I didn't expect a war zone.
About 30 minutes later, I joined dozens of neighbors and media members on a 10th Street sidewalk and watched as firefighters carried a family of six, one at a time, from their burning home.
Yellow tape blocked the chaotic block both ways. Emergency vehicles crowded the street like disorganized Matchbox cars. Firefighters, EMTs and police officers ran every which way, jumping over discarded gear and squawking into radios.
Some knelt and pumped their hands on chests, blew occasional breaths into open mouths. Kids' mouths. A woman's.
Onlookers as far as three blocks away wanted answers. There had to be hundreds watching. They stood outside, craning their heads to see what was at the center of so many stuttering emergency lights on that overcast morning.
Quite a few pulled me aside, asked me what happened; probably because of the tie I wore, the video phone I was using and the notepad sticking out of my back pocket.
Go for the official-looking guy. He'll know.
I didn't. I was clueless. I couldn't understand why the kids had bloodstains on their clothes.
This obviously was bigger than a fire. This was bad.
I found out what happened three hours later at a press conference: Five of the six pulled from the smoke-choked home had been stabbed. They'd died at the hospital. And their father, the only one left alive, was a suspect.
It made me mad to hear that. Furious. Kids? Stabbed? Maybe left to die in a house someone set on fire? And their dad's a suspect?
I'll be honest; it broke me. I stared at nothing while I uploaded the raw video footage I'd gotten. Several co-workers asked whether I was OK. I wasn't. Others didn't say anything because they couldn't, had the same thousand-yard stare I did. A news story had never slammed me up against a wall and shaken me until I went numb. This one did.
It affected most people in the newsroom. None of us could believe this had happened. Mail Tribune veterans of 20 years or more said they'd never seen anything like this. We couldn't stop shaking our heads.
I wondered what good could come from a scene like the one on 10th Street. A lot of my local friends seemed to wonder, too, especially the ones with kids. Some took to Facebook to write things like, "Holding my sweet child extra close today" and "Really want to be hugging my kids right now."
That's the thing about tragedy; sometimes it kicks over that full bucket of pebble-shaped blessings and forces you to pick them up one by one. You put them back and tell yourself you won't forget they're there this time.
My mom called wanting something during the final hours of the day. I snapped at her and hung up. I couldn't stop thinking about those horrible words: "stab wounds."
I apologized later and explained myself. I told her I couldn't stop thinking about those kids and how afraid they must have been. My mom's a very spiritual person. She said she knows — not thinks, knows — an angel wrapped its wings around every kid, and squeezed tight.
I needed to hear that.
Reach Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.