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Gratitude and grace in wake of horrific tragedy

We must hold ourselves together, hold ourselves accountable and hold each other close. These thoughts trace the trajectory of my feelings about the 10th Street tragedy.

I was only an hour or so back from a weeklong vacation when we started hearing the scanner chatter Monday morning.

"Who wants to go to a structure fire?" asked our city editor, Cathy Noah, standing between me and reporter Damian Mann.

I had a mountain of unanswered emails, phone messages and court calendars to wade through. And, truth be told, I loathe going out on fire calls. So I heaved a sigh of relief when Damian offered to go.

Fire calls generally turn out to be nothing. But you never know. So you bolt out the door and race toward the scene, only to be called back nine out of 10 times because someone's burning trash — or their dinner. I'm always relieved when there's no loss to report.

I saw my older brother go up in flames as the result of a fireplace accident when I was 5 years old. Dave suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body. For months he endured hell on earth in a burn ward, battling for his life. For years I couldn't be around fires without freaking out.

Ironically, a dozen years of going out on these calls has helped me process that night. But I still get the heebie-jeebies wondering what I might run into some day.

Damian never suspected he'd be walking into a domestic-violence war zone armed with only a pen and pad. A 30-year-old mother, Tabasha Paige-Criado, and her four young children had all been slain. The father, Jordan Criado, 51, now lies unresponsive and on life-support in Rogue Valley Medical Center.

In my worst nightmares I could never imagine what Damian witnessed. Now I'm wracked with some sort of journalistic survivor's guilt. This week, as Damian has written heart-wrenching story after story about this tragedy, I've been hovering like a mother hen. I can't stop asking whether he's OK. I can't stop hugging him. Patting his arm. Telling him to eat something.

Trust me when I say this is not typical. Hugging in the newsroom is a rare occurrence — we are much more likely to tweak each other's tail.

But I know Damian has been forever changed by what he witnessed. In fact, we all have. And, believe it or not, that can be a good thing.

As the social services and court reporter, my job is to find out what we knew about this family as a community. What we might have done to prevent this. What we can do to better protect ourselves and, most importantly, our most innocent victims, our children.

On Tuesday I visited the site. Grim-faced investigators flowed in and out of the burned-out house. The memorial of toys, flowers and candles grew by the minute as shell-shocked neighbors dropped off tangible tokens of their grief.

My assignment was to tell the toll a tragedy such as this takes on those whose job it is to deal with trauma on a daily basis. I interviewed the first-responders, dismayed child-abuse prevention professionals and grief-stricken neighbors.

First on my list was Medford police Lt. Bob Hansen. I wanted to know how the men and women on his force were coping. In mid-question I flashed on the image photographer Bob Pennell shot just 24 hours prior of Sgt. Curtis Whipple desperately trying to breathe life into one of the children. What must he be feeling?

I choked up, immediately apologized, then continued with my questions. Moments later the normally cool and composed veteran officer had his own flashback. The veteran officer's guard came down momentarily, too. Shaking his head and wiping away a tear, he also apologized.

How wrong-headed to feel such embarrassment at letting one another see we're human. Professionalism and compassion are not mutually exclusive. At least, they shouldn't be. The day a tragedy like this doesn't rip at my heart is the day I'll know I've been broken.

I was still mulling the strength and fragility of the human psyche as I spoke with a therapist who specializes in trauma recovery. I was wondering where we all go from here.

On Friday night I attended the memorial service in Hawthorne Park. I hadn't planned to go. But I'd watched an amazing video of a press conference given by Tabasha's brother, Jesse Owens. And it was reverberating in my heart and mind.

This Grace-filled, grief-stricken stranger spoke with such compelling honesty about his feelings. Jesse offered his heartfelt gratitude to our entire community for rallying around his family. Then he talked of forgiveness for his brother-in-law, even as he acknowledged his own anger and confusion. We do not know what fueled this conflagration of horror, he reminded us. Let us seek understanding, not pass judgment, he pleaded.

I watched the tears streaming down his face and wiped away my own. I wanted to hear Jesse speak again.

I took my first deep breath of the week wandering the path toward the stage. The scent of flowering trees combined with freshly mowed grass. Someone handed me a glow stick and a smile. Music washed over us all, along with the summer breeze.

About 300 people gathered in the growing dusk. Tiny babies were held tightly in their parents' arms. There were grandparents with wise and careworn faces. Mostly there was a palpable sense of connection and caring.

Evelyn Young, Tabasha's 51-year-old great aunt from Bakersfield, Calif., echoed Jesse's earlier comments. She had come to Medford with a heavy heart, but was so touched by how the community "wrapped its arms around (her) family," she wanted to see our faces, she said.

"Thank you for loving our family as if they were your own," she said, adding a special thank you to all the first responders.

"It was a heroic effort and you did everything you could do to save our babies, but it was just not meant to be," she said.

Jesse told those attending Friday's memorial service they were witnessing a demonstration of "love in action." Out of the ashes of this tragedy will come change, he promised.

"Oh my God, my God," he said. "You guys are wonderful. You let me know my sister didn't die in vain."

I pray this is so. In the weeks to come, there will be more stories. We will continue to search for answers. And for solutions. But in this moment, I simply want to offer my heartfelt gratitude to Jesse and his family for their generous spirits and healing words.

Reach Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.