JOURNALISM

Florida's Wild Heart

(from Explore magazine)

           

            The heart of Florida is a vast swamp called the Everglades. And the heart of the Everglades is Everglades City, a sleepy little village that sits at the dead end of a back road between Naples and Miami. If you didn’t know the turnoff to Everglades City you’d speed right past it, as most people do, heading for the beaches and pastel condos along the coast. On a typical mid-winter day, the curving two-lane road into Everglades City is so quiet that it’s not unusual to round the corner and see an eight-foot alligator crawling across the road. And one afternoon my 17 year-old daughter Caitlin saw what must have been a mythic Florida panther (“a big brown cat with a long tail”) pad across the same road, maybe a mile from the dusty little book shop in downtown Everglades City where I happened to be reading about Florida wildlife at the time. As a tourist destination, Everglades City obviously lacks the glitzy appeal of the Gulf coast and the seedy attractions of Miami. But it’s a good thing that nobody comes here. If Everglades City was more popular, there would be nowhere to experience the bucolic storybook place that Florida used to be.

            Heading down that sleepy two-lane towards Everglades City is therefore a bit like traveling back in time.  Cruising through palmetto and cypress thicket into the outskirts of town, you pass hand-painted alligator signs and airboats moored along the Barron River - a winding jungle waterway that Barron C. Collier, the town’s founder, named after himself. Then you pass the sun-bleached Everglades High School, which like most every other building in town was built back in 1926 and looks it. The streets are lined with boxy homes perched on hurricane stilts; fishing boats parked out of the sun under stilt and shadow; a Spanish-style railroad station; a massive-columned Collier County Courthouse; and finally, right across the road from the temple-tall, massive-pillared Bank of the Everglades, the town’s celebrated Rod & Gun Club, where my daughter and I planned to spend a week.

            Caitlin lives with her mother most of the time, so we’ve made a point of regularly undertaking father-daughter vacations. Given that it was still mid-winter and bitterly cold up in Canada, I didn’t have to twist her arm to persuade her to accompany me to Florida, where we planned to spend a week looking for birds and wildlife, canoeing, and fishing, and exploring the Everglades. After a long day of flying down from Winnipeg in cramped economy-fare seats, it was good to be here at last. The Rod and Gun Club doesn’t have a sign out front, and when you turn into the wooded driveway you wonder if you’re trespassing. The white clapboard main lodge looks like a large private residence, and when you walk in the front door you feel you’ve slipped through a weft in the space-time continuum and entered the Olde Florida of 80 years ago.

            We hauled our bags through the lobby, which was dark and cool in the heat. The centre of the floor was occupied by a massive-legged old wooden billiard table that looked like it came south on a Mississippi stern-wheeler. The dark cypress walls were hung with alligator skins, antique wooden clocks, old maps, bear hides, turn-of-the century rifles, and dusty, six-foot-long trophy tarpon. Ceiling fans stirred the warm air and the music of Glenn Miller’s Air Force band drifted out of the long veranda, which had wide screened windows overlooking the palm-lined river. At the front desk, there was no computer, no email, and no fax machine. The desk clerk explained that all meals and hotel bills had to be paid in cash. And although his old nickel-plated cash register was full of folding money, for which security was no doubt provided by Colonel Colt. It would obviously make life a little easier if management introduced a credit card system and perhaps exchanged the old rotary-dialed bakelite phone for a modern switchboard system or maybe even, god forbid, a fax machine. But the subtle and unspoken attitude you run into everywhere in Everglades City is that the world would be a better place if the last half-century had never happened.

            After moving into our cabin; checking out the view from the porch – a sprawling lawn with tall coconut palms and a walkway along the river – we adjourned to the hotel’s empty pool and took a long-awaited swim. Drifting on our backs in the afternoon heat, looking up at the fluffy clouds, it was pleasant to think that up north right now everyone was wrestling with rush hour traffic and 25 below. We ate an excellent dinner of grouper and rice in the veranda and watched the sun go down. In Everglades City, the main event every evening is sunset. Florida weather is such that in the late afternoon, thunderheads tend to pile up over the Gulf of Mexico. By evening, the sun is burning down through the clouds and the distant thunderheads look like great, dark hulking galleons, illuminated from within by occasional flashes of lightning. The yard of the Rod and Gun Club is forested with tall coconut palms, so you can only see the sunset through apertures in the foliage. But the river nevertheless captures the display, and as dusk descends the water slides past like molten brass.

            After dinner we inspected the adjoining lounge, which is more like an antiquated back county museum than the lobby of a hotel.  A big map showed the Florida peninsula, which is 400 miles long, and droops like a panther’s foreleg down into the warm currents of the Gulf Stream. Constructed of coral limestone and covered with skimpy soil, the peninsula is heated as if through greenhouse glass by the hazy tropical sun, and showered with 60 inches of rain per year. The northern half of the state is well drained, covered by grass and piney woods. But the southern half holds rainwater in thousands of bogs and marshes, and this immense wetland is actually a patchwork of ecosystems that goes by the general term “the Everglades”. Nowadays the wetlands of the Everglades have been channelized, drained, corralled and crowded into the extreme southwestern corner of the state, but prior to the arrival of Europeans marshes and swamps covered the entire southern half of the peninsula.

            Illustrations on the wall depicted the first inhabitants of the Everglades – the Calusa Indians, who had a fairly easy life in this land of plentiful wildlife, and used their leisure time to develop a complex society. According to the books I’d read, the Calusa were particularly active in the visual arts, and they produced many spare, graceful wildlife carvings that resemble Egyptian tomb statuary. The Calusa used cast-off oyster and whelk shells to build mounds throughout the Everglades. The mounds afforded relief from flooding, and provided them with dry, breezy, relatively bug-free living sites. These shell “islands” are surprisingly large, and some were laid out in circular form, others in parallel rows, still others in a horseshoe shapes. One of their islands, for example, was a 75-acre shell mound built in a donut shape with a narrow opening which allowed the centre of the island to fill with water at high tide. When the tide receded the villagers would stretch nets across the opening and harvest the trapped fish. Over 100 shell mound islands are still scattered through the Everglades, and some modern day communities, like Chokoloskee, are built atop them.

            The first Spanish explorers to the Everglades weren’t much impressed by the Calusa Indians. Ponce de Leon carried a royal document that advised him to convert them to Christianity or put them to the sword. (“If they seek not to obey the contents of such requisition to the Faith you may make war upon them and enslave them…”) The Spanish used huge mastiff war dogs to hunt the Indians down (“they are more afraid of my dog than of 20 of my warriors”) and although the Calusa at first tried to make peace with the Spaniards, the unrelenting ferocity of the invaders hardened their will, and Ponce de Leon was eventually killed by a Calusa war party in 1521. Ponce of course was succeeded by other invaders. And although local brochures and placemats in Everglades restaurants suggest that the Calusa “were a nomadic people who moved away,” the historical record leaves little doubt that most were captured by slavers and worked to death. There are still natives here, but they are mostly Seminole Indians, who migrated into the state after the Spaniards left and the Calusa were exterminated.

            The Everglades provided a good living for aboriginal hunter-gatherers, but Europeans had a hard time figuring out how to convert all this marshland into productive real estate. In 1921, a gleaming brass and mahogany steamboat called The Barroness chuffed up this same jungle river that now leads past the door of this hotel. Aboard The Barroness was Barron Collier, a New York tycoon who had made a fortune by turning streetcars into mobile advertising billboards, and was now intent on turning south Florida into an advertisement for himself. Collier purchased a vast portion of south Florida and named it after himself “Collier County”. His plan was to build a settlement here that would outstrip Miami and become the capital of the southern United States.

            When he arrived, he saw that most of his new real estate appeared to be either soggy marshland or coastal mangrove forest, subject to tidal submersion and periodic flooding. (A detail which gave rise to the expression, “I have some nice Florida swampland for you…”) Like any self-respecting buccaneer capitalist, Barron Collier wasn’t about to let Mother Nature foil his dreams of glory. He brought in a floating suction dredge and attacked the Barron River, spewing the reeking primeval mud onto the surrounding riverbanks, where bulldozers flattened it out in the shape of a town site. He built a seaport at the mouth of the river, where ships deposited supplies for the future metropolis of “Everglades City”. On the banks of the river, he built a private estate that would become a lodge for all his wealthy friends – a secret clubhouse for overgrown boys; a place where he and his pals could play cards, smoke cigars and go fishing and hunting in the nearby wilderness.

            As the new community grew, Collier made sure that he owned everything that was worth owning. He owned the bakery, the hotel, the movie theatre, the liquor store, and the bank. He owned the Juliet C. Collier Hospital, and he owned the doctors and nurses who worked there. He built a trolley car line to move people back and forth between his various businesses. He mounted a steam whistle in the centre of town, and it blew every morning to wake people up; blew at noon to send them home for lunch, and blew again at 12:55 to summon them back to work. Everglades City was hundreds of miles from nowhere so he decided to build the Tamiami Trail, a highway that would run straight as a knife cut right across the swamps and connect Everglades City to Miami.

            It is one thing to envision a highway, and quite another to actually build it. The surveyors first had to cope with “sawgrass”, a tall grass that looks innocent enough, but in close contact, lacerates human flesh like concertina wire. Struggling forward through knee-deep muck, the first wave of construction workers had to clear out the sawgrass by hand. Underneath the thickets of sawgrass were layers of water, muck and jagged limestone, which they had to blast away with dynamite. The plan was to fill the roadway with crushed rock, but the muck kept pouring back into the excavation, and the construction site became a treacherous hell of mucky tangled logs, sharp rocks, roaring dredges, and clouds of mosquitoes, “so thick” swore one worker, “you could scoop them off your neck in handfuls.” The laborers were dismembered by machinery and bitten by poisonous snakes. They were drowned, crushed, and blown to pieces by faulty charges of dynamite. The job was supposed to take two years. But it took 12, and the number of men it killed was never recorded.

            The highway was finally completed in 1928, the price of Everglades swampland shot up to $92 per acre. Caught up in the heady excitement of the Roaring 20s , land speculators purchased great packages of swampland, and encouraged aspiring settlers to get in “on the ground floor” of the land boom. But Mother Nature had other ideas.  On September 16, 1928, an enormous hurricane blew in from the Atlantic and swept across southern Florida. It was a wet year and water levels in the Everglades were already high. The highest point of land along Collier’s highway is only 12 feet above sea level, and like most hurricanes, this one pushed a “storm surge” ahead of it – a bulge of tidal water that, depending on factors like time of day and phase of the moon – can rise to 18 feet above sea level. The speculators who encouraged farmers to colonize the Glades may have understood the risks, but the colonists themselves knew little. There was no weather forecasting then, or telephones to warn little Everglades communities like Belle Glade, Pahokee, or Chosen. When the storm wave came rolling across the Everglades, the residents of those pioneer villages tried to take shelter on rooftops and barns, but the buildings were torn apart by the 150 mile per hour winds. When the storm abated, cadavers floated in the streets like cordwood. In all, 1,800 people died. It was the second worst storm death toll in American history.

            In 1929, one year after that great hurricane wiped out the Everglades, the Great Depression arrived and delivered the coup de grace to Collier’s grandiose dreams for Everglades City. Nowadays, the population here hovers at about 300 residents, and Collier’s swanky private lodge has learned to work for a living. It’s now called the Everglades Rod and Gun Club – this very hotel. 

            The day after our arrival Caitlin and I got up early in the morning, packed a lunch and ventured forth to explore the surrounding Everglades. There are half a dozen parks and wildlife refuges within an hour’s drive of Everglades City, and each one offers a different perspective on this primeval and waterlogged landscape. The 729,000 acre Big Cypress National Preserve is only about half an hour’s drive from the Rod and Gun Club, and is one of the most remarkable forests in the country. Of the many ecosystems that comprise the Everglades, cypress forest is the most dramatic. A boardwalk leads through the forest, and even though the mosquitoes are abundant, they can’t fly as fast as our northern mosquitoes, and an easy walking pace leaves them behind. Even on a bright sunny day, it’s cool and dark in a cypress forest. Huge cypress trees stand hip-deep in black water, and their craggy “knees” and their limbs draped with Spanish moss evoke the classic image of a southern swamp.

            The next day we visited another park, Fakahatchee Strand State preserve, where another long boardwalk leads through open marshes and cypress woods. Although logging and drainage damaged much of this area in years past, Fakahatchee is still one of Florida’s most unusual ecosystems, with the largest population of royal palms and wild orchids in the United States. The same water that made this country so difficult for early explorers and land developers makes it tremendously attractive to wildlife.

            Biologists point out that wetlands are the most fertile of all ecosystems. And most of the Everglades is flooded with shallow, nutrient-rich water that is heated into a veritable living broth by the sun. In parks like Fakahatchee you can see more living creatures per acre than in any other habitat in North America. As you hike along the boardwalk, everywhere you look hornets and bees are droning amongst the heavy wildflowers. The grass under the boardwalk is alive with scampering lizards. In the shallow water, there are so many fish that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been dumped here several hours ago by tanker truck. Prehistoric-looking garfish as thick as baseball bats float indolently just beneath the surface, stirring occasionally to nip at the clouds of minnows going by. Bass, sunfish, and crappies roil the water as they feed on shrimps and flies. There are so many species, everywhere you look, it’s like studying one of those fold-out pictorial illustrations in a nature book – countless fish, turtles, and alligators floating just beneath the surface; dozens of species of coots, rails, gallinules, herons, egrets and ibises poking along the marshy edges, and always, numerous buzzards and ospreys working the high thermals overhead.

            After a few days of hiking, we were ready to hit the water, so we made a date with Captain Brian Richardson, a full-time fishing guide who grew up in Everglades City and spends most of his days squiring sports from all over the world. (Hemingway, John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Don Johnson and numerous other Hollywood types along with three or four U.S. presidents have all fished here). It’s exhilarating to set out for a morning of adventure with Captain Brian. As we cruised away from the dock, large prehistoric looking brown pelicans went coasting past, and just past the Rod & Gun Club, a huge animal rolled out of the water right in front of us, exhaling with a pneumatic hiss and lifting his paddled tail to dive. “That’s a manatee,” Brian explained. “We have to go slow through here or we’ll hit them. They’re everywhere.” A little further on, the river opened up into a wide bay, flat and shiny as steel in the morning sun, and an osprey dropped like a folded knife into the calm water, emerging with a mullet in its claws. No sooner did the osprey gain altitude than a bald eagle came laboring across the bay, intent on strong-arming the fish away.

            Soon we were winding our way down a mangrove “creek”, which is a meandering waterway entirely enclosed by foliage. The sun came down through the interlaced leaves and dappled the green water with sunlight, and in some places the branches were so low we had to duck. Mangroves are yet another Everglades ecosystem – a transition zone between the freshwater marshes inland and the saltwater islands of the Gulf. This particular creek was the same tunneled waterway where Richard Nixon came fishing for snook and fell out of the boat, twice. Unfortunately there was no tape recorder running at the time. Tidal current whirled past submerged logs, and we could see small fish holding in the current, darting away from the looming shadow of the boat “Lots of snook here,” said Brian. “They hold in these little shadowy pockets along the edge of the creek and ambush baitfish going by.”

            As fresh water from the Everglades flows down into these mangrove forests, it mixes with salt water and the resultant “brackish” water makes a whole new ecosystem for plants and animals. The mangrove itself is a remarkable species that grows on stilts and provides a nursery area for hundreds of types of fish and crustaceans. The mangrove leaves are constantly shed into the water, broken down by bacteria, and converted into food for creatures like mussels, crab, shrimps, and oysters. Mangrove forests also make nesting grounds for herons, egrets, spoonbills, and other local birds. There’s even a race of dwarf white-tailed deer here. The Florida panther, unlike his western cousins, doesn’t mind swimming around in these brackish creeks hunting deer. “I’ve lived here all my life but I’ve only seen panthers half a dozen times,” says Captain Brian. “But they’re around.” Several miles up the mangrove creek, after we’ve caught and released a number of snook, the creek widens out into a smallish lake and a big porpoise appears out of nowhere. Heading straight over to the boat, it circles us for several minutes, blowing, cavorting, and rubbing against the prow.

            An hour later we exit from the mangrove forest and make our way out into a tangle of islands, flanked by long white-sand beaches. Captain Brian feeds the big Yamaha some gas and we speed across the wide-open water, feeling a welcome breeze on our faces. This is called the Ten Thousand Islands, and you might think you were in some island-dotted river system in the Canadian Shield, except these islands are clad with tropical trees instead of jackpine, and a disturbance on the calm water just ahead means a big leopard ray has broken the surface, or perhaps a tarpon, dolphin, sea turtle or hammerhead. “You never know what you’re going to see in these waters,” says Brian. “I’m out here every day and I never get bored with the place.”

            We stop in a wide open area that Brian says is a shallow bed of turtle grass, and over the next half hour we catch a number of sea trout; the largest one succumbing to my daughter’s technique. On the way back home, we stop at the community of Chokoloskee, which is only three miles south of Everglades City. At 150 acres in size and approximately 20 feet above sea level, Chokoloskee Island is the largest shell mound in Florida. We stopped at the historic Smallwood Store, which was established as a trading post in 1906, and still looks much the same as it did in the pioneering days, thanks to the efforts of founder Ted Smallwood’s granddaughter, who now operates it as a museum. In this part of the Everglades, the first white settlers tended to be rough-and-tumble types who trapped otters, raccoons and ‘gators for their hides and hunted “plume birds” like egrets for their ostentatious feathers, which were literally worth their weight in gold in the ladies’ hat trade. The trappers lived out in the mangrove islands, on rickety stilt houses or on shacks nailed up amongst the palmettos. They coexisted with the bugs and the snakes and they brought their goods to this trading post. On this quiet afternoon, strolling around inside the gloomy and rustic interior of the trading post, it’s easy to imagine the scene here seven or eight decades ago.

            One of the roughest of the pioneers was Edgar J. Watson, a shrewd and hardboiled businessman who lived a notch higher than the other pioneers. Watson operated a sugar cane plantation that produced the best syrup in Florida. His plantation also tended to be the last stop for many of the men who came to work for him. Drifters would show up and accept work, then disappear mysteriously just before he could manage to pay them. Various decomposed bodies showed up near his homestead, but Watson always insisted that someone else had seen the dead men last, and those other suspects had invariably also disappeared. Finally the local people became convinced that Watson was a multiple murderer and, in true Everglades fashion, they decided to handle it themselves without calling in the law. When Watson cruised up to this pier one day in 1910, a vigilante group shot him to pieces. The story was reconstructed in Peter Matthiessen's novel, Killing Mister Watson. Here in this sleepy backcountry village, where the passage of time seem to make no mark, the killing of Mister Watson is referred to as if it happened last week.

            Violence or at least lawlessness has always been part of Everglades backcountry culture. It’s such a wild place that the ordinary rules don’t apply, and that makes it an attractive place for fugitives, rogues and others who tend to see the law as a nuisance. The Everglades were made into a National Park in 1947 (the only subtropical park in the United States) and hunting and trapping were declared illegal. Due to overhunting, alligators were on the verge of extinction, and the Park promised to be the salvation for many other species too. But the trappers and hide hunters who lived in the backcountry didn’t care much for the new laws or the Federal rangers either, and for the first few decades of the Park’s existence, bush-savvy poachers played nightly games of cat and mouse with the rangers.

            One of the best poachers lived here in Chokoloskee. He was a lean and soft-spoken old-timer named Totch Brown. (Matthiessen interviewed him extensively while researching his novel Killing Mister Watson.) Totch’s memoirs are for sale in the trading post, and his video plays in an endless tape loop from a television set in a cluttered corner of the attic. Having grown up in the swamps, Totch knew every nook and cranny of the mangrove wilderness. Operating alone, he would slip his tiny boat past the ranger check stations and hunt alligators all night with a flashlight and a .22 rifle. (“Killing a gator isn’t all that simple,” Totch explains, “The gator usually gets scared and sinks. If the water is clear and I can see him lying on the bottom I can very gently stick the gun underwater, arm and all, put the muzzle within half an inch of the gator’s eye and pull the trigger.”)  By today’s standards, it’s hard to feel any respect for someone who would persecute an endangered species so relentlessly. But Totch was like a feral wolf-child, born and raised in the swamps. He had no other way to make a living except with his traps and guns, and the Park had made him an endangered species himself. 

            When old age and the Lacey Act (which banned the sale and traffic in alligator hides) made it tougher for him to make a living in the swamps, Totch turned to another illegal product – marijuana. He started by importing bales of marijuana from offshore “mother ships”, using his knowledge of the tangled mangrove swamps to elude the authorities. Eventually he eliminated the middlemen and cruised straight to Columbia himself, filled shrimp boats with marijuana then brought them back to Florida, employing feints, decoy boats, and other wily tricks to outsmart the Coast Guard. Soon, other backwoodsmen around Everglades City and Chokoloskee (the villages are only three miles apart) were emulating Totch’s example, and new fishing boats, new pickup trucks, and freshly paved driveways began appearing all over the neighborhood. 

            In the predawn darkness of July 7, 1983, a convoy of police vehicles blocked the narrow two-lane road leading into Everglades City and 200 heavily-armed Federal agents moved in to execute arrest warrants against most of the locals. Out of the two small villages, 200 people were charged with marijuana trafficking. Totch Brown was arrested and offered a long stretch in a three-by-six concrete cell, as opposed to leniency if he agreed to testify against his neighbors. But people in the Everglades have their own ways of doing things, and the 64 year-old Brown refused to talk, which cost him an extra 18 months in prison. Nowadays, the marijuana trade has been shut down. Or at least the locals say it has. But on several occasions, I was awakened at three or four o’clock in the morning by the sound of airboats rumbling past our cottage. I asked Captain Brian what they were doing, and he just chuckled. “I don’t know. But anybody who’s out on that river at that time of the night is up to no good, I’ll guarantee you that.”

            Everglades National Park headquarters, which is only a mile from the Rod & Gun Club, rents canoes, and in a matter of a few hours, you can paddle all the way from Everglades City to the open sea of the Gulf of Mexico. One hot quiet afternoon we paddled to the edge of the open water, and stopped at an unoccupied old shack that probably dated back to the era of Totch Brown and the other wild men who once owned this country. The shack was built on stilts, and crooked mangrove limbs were trying to grow their way through the deck. After poking around the shack, (which apparently you could rent for $10 per night from the Park authorities), Caitlin and I popped open a couple of cold drinks and sat in the shady front deck.

            The pale green water was utterly flat in the afternoon heat, and a line of towers were building in the southwest; big thunderheads that sometime this evening would bring rain. Tomorrow, we had to pack up and head home. But right now, it was hot and immensely silent in this wild place, and it seemed that the snowy streets of Canada were far, far away.               

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Tommy Foy was telling us this story while we were waiting for our plane at the Winnipeg Airport. I was sitting in the departure lounge with my brother Peter, and his 10 year-old son Duncan. We were sitting with our fishing tackle and duffle bags, waiting for the plane that would take us up north to Knee lake Lodge. We’d spotted Foy for potential trouble too, albeit trouble of the entertaining kind. On any fishing trip there always seems to be one guy you notice in the crowd. As soon as Tommy Foy entered the departure lounge it was like Eddie Shack had walked in. Tom Foy (“Little Tommy Tucker” to his friends) is a sawed-off 52 year-old Pennsylvania coal miner whose eyes burn with fierce mischief. He was performing for us now, gesturing with his coffee cup. “The cop says to me, ‘okay where is your hotel?’ But I couldn’t even remember its name!”

It was five o’clock in the morning, warm and sunny outside, and you could smell last night’s beer on Foy’s clothes. One of the amusements of a fly-out fishing trip is getting to meet people from other walks of life. I was encouraging Foy to tell us his story because I thought it would intrigue my 10 year-old nephew Duncan, who is about a nice as a 10 year-old boy can be and still be interested in bad behavior. Foy told us the cops asked him what he was doing in Winnipeg, and Foy told them the short version. The cops told him and Mayhugh to get in the car. “I said no way,” laughs Foy. “You’re trying to take us to that other hotel, the crowbar hotel.”

The cops insisted, and for the next half hour they all drove around Winnipeg’s airport district, checking out hotels until Foy and Mayhugh spotted one that looked familiar. “Man, you got nice cops in the country,” Foy told us. “Everybody has been good to us since our accident. It takes some getting used to.”

A few minutes later they announced our flight and we walked out onto the tarmac, climbed onto the big twin-engine turbo-prop. My nephew Duncan and I sat close to Foy and his buddies. We’d already heard about who they were, and what they’d been through, and we wanted to hear more stories, but were hesitant to intrude on their privacy. Foy and his friends are coal miners, and a year ago they were as good as dead. He and eight other miners were working deep within the Quecreek Coal Mine, near Somerset, Pennsylvania when, in the terse parlance of their trade, they “hit water.”

One of their crew, a veteran 41 year-old machine operator named Mark Popernack, was driving the carbide cutting blades of his 60-ton mining machine into the coal face when water suddenly exploded out of the wall. Relying on a faulty map, he’d accidentally cut into an adjacent flooded coal mine, and now groundwater was thundering into his face. Popernack screamed a warning at his buddies and they ran for their lives. The water was soon up to their waists. Clawing their way through the darkness, they found a high spot and huddled together in the darkness, watching the water creep towards them. They banged on the ceiling bolts with hammers, thinking they were doomed, not knowing that high above, rescue crews were working frantically to save them.  

 

They were rescued three days later, and millions of televisions viewers around the world watched as the “Quecreek Nine” were plucked out alive. Since that day, they’ve become folk heroes. Restaurant owners refuse payment for their meals, cops give them limousine service, and strangers approach just to touch their shoulders. As we flew up to Knee Lake Lodge, different anglers from across North America came down the aisle to shake their hands, and the Quecreek miners looked a little uneasy with the adulation, as if worried they might say something or commit some error that suddenly made everyone realize they weren’t folk heroes at all, just a bunch of average guys who dig coal for a living.

 

On the front terrace of palatial Knee Lake Lodge the miners are relaxing after a long day of fishing, drinking cold beer. Peter and Duncan and I are sitting out there too, along with all the other American fishermen. There are about 40 anglers in this group, and quite a few are women. But we’re the only Canadians, which is fairly normal.

There are scores of plush fly-in lodges across the Canadian north, but you almost never encounter a fellow Canadian. It’s not that Canadians don’t appreciate fishing, or that they can’t afford it. There’s no shortage of Canadians who think nothing of spending $400 a night on a hotel room in Italy or France or the Dutch Antilles. They just don’t seem much interested in exploring their own country. I was floating down a river in the Yukon once, talking to some wealthy people from Germany. We were looking at some high cliffs, watching some Peregrine falcons beat circles across the sky. We got to talking, and I told the Germans how much I wanted to see their country, the Rhine, the Black Forest, and so on. The German woman gave me an odd look. “Why would you want to go all the way to Europe when you have this?”

So, as usual, we were surrounded by foreigners as we sat out on the back deck, watching dusk fall on our lake. Next to me was a Pennsylvania miner named John Unger, 52 years old, a big man with heavy eyeglasses and wide strong beat-up hands. Unger told us that shortly after their rescue they attended celebrity functions, met President George W. Bush (“He’s a nice fellah; a real regular guy.”), and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. (“There’s no chit chat with Oprah. She’s all business.”) Oprah’s staff did some research and determined that Knee Lake Resort is one of the best fishing lodges in North America. Oprah’s staff phoned Phil and Liz-Ann Reid, the owners of the lodge, who happily offered to give the miners an all-expense paid fishing trip.

Located 650 km. north of Winnipeg, in the wilderness of the Hayes and God’s River country, Knee Lake Resort takes the uniquely Canadian concept of the plush fly-in fishing resort and knocks up the bar another couple of notches. The lodging, the food, the staff; the whole place is a conversation stopper. After the plane landed this morning, Peter, Duncan and I went fishing. Duncan is a very serious fisherman. At the family cottage, he sits all day long on the front dock, patiently waiting for a pike or walleye to nibble his bait. Some days he catches three or four fish. Other days he catches nothing. But his commitment to fishing never falters, and he grimly keeps score of every fish he catches and releases. Pete and I knew this fishing trip would be a thrill of a lifetime for Duncan. And that afternoon, as we watched Duncan furiously crank his reel handle every time he caught a fish, it was clear that we were getting more enjoyment out of seeing him catch fish than from fishing ourselves.     

The miners had a good day too. They spent the afternoon casting for pike, which are so numerous on Knee Lake that it’s not unusual to catch a fish on every cast. (“Unbelievable,” John Unger said. “Today I caught the biggest fish of my life.”) Returning to the lodge for a nap, a shower, and a fabulous meal of crispy vegetables and sweet tenderloin, they joined us out on the back deck to watch the sun go down. Loons were crying, and the lake was glowing in the dusk. Knee Lake is hundreds of miles from the nearest road and a miner named Bob “Boogie” Pugh was a little overwhelmed by it all. “I’ve never seen a place like this,” he said. “I’ve never even been outside Pennsylvania.”

Coal mining was once a major industry in Pennsylvania, but environmental laws have forced the power industry to switch to natural gas, and Somerset County (which is where hijacked Flight 93 crashed on September 11) is now pocked with rusted pit heads and abandoned mines. Before the accident, the Quecreek Mine was a barely profitable operation that slanted a mile down into the earth. It was a cold, wet and claustrophobic place. The ceiling was only four and a half feet high; and the miners spent most of their shifts hobbling around in a half-crouch. The rescue crews had drawings of the mine, but the miners had already proven that existing survey maps were inaccurate, and when a mine surveyor named Bob Long walked out into Billy Arnold’s farm field in the middle of the night, tapped the ground and said, “drill here,” he was relying on pure Hail Mary guesswork as much as surveying data. He guessed that the miners had retreated to the highest spot in the mine, and he guessed that it was right beneath his feet. As it turned out, he’d nailed the spot exactly, but 240 feet of bedrock separated the rescuers from the miners, and the trapped men were cornered by rising water, and running out of air.

Down in the mine the biggest guy in this group, Randy Fogle, the crew boss, kept the miners busy. He made them erect a curtain, and then a crude cinderblock wall so they wouldn’t have to watch the water creeping towards them. They were lifelong friends, bonded together by the dangers of their job, and they told stories to keep their spirits up. They joked with their boss Randy that since he was the biggest one, it was probably a good idea to eat him first.  Boogie Pugh stared into the darkness and told them of a vision he was having, of a beautiful little village framed by hills and a full moon. Hot-blooded Tommy Foy was the only one who wasn’t freezing to death, so he loaned his body to the others. “I’d go around from one guy to the other, warming them up,” says Foy. “They’d say, ‘Come over here and warm me up, Tuck, you’re the warmest little sonofabitch.’”

They could hear the faint thump of a hammer drill pounding through rock above them, and they heard the ominous silence when the drill finally broke. Mine rescues usually fail, and despite their best hopes, they believed they were going to die. Tearing up scraps of cardboard, they wrote goodbye letters to their wives and children and sealed them in a plastic pail. They talked about what was going to be like when the water rose to their chins, and argued about whether they should press their faces to the ceiling and fight for every last gasp or make a pact to dive under the water together. There was some comfort in making decisions as a group, so they linked themselves together with a length of cable to keep their bodies together after they drowned.

“I was thinking about my wife and my kids,” John Unger said, as it grew dark. “And I was thinking I’d never go hunting or fishing again. I have a wife with multiple sclerosis, and you know, you have to do something to pay the bills. But my favorite thing is being out in the woods. I don’t know how I ended up spending my life in a coal mine. I just love being outdoors.”

 

The next night, after dinner, the lodge owners’ son, a perky blond kid named Phil Reid Jr., offered to take us all out to look for Bruiser, a 600-pound black bear that lives in the nearby woods. There are lots of bears around the lodge. Yesterday for example a bear walked right through the camp. Duncan ran in and told me about it. “Uncle Jake, there’s a bear!”

We went out on the deck and looked at the bear. It was standing down by the lake, ripping at a dead whitefish that had drifted up on the shore. Its rear end was toward us, but it wasn’t Bruiser. The guides had told us that you can recognize Bruiser because he has a white blaze on his chest and he’s twice the size of an ordinary bear. Bruiser has been living near Knee Lake Resort for eight or nine years, which makes him probably older than our bus driver, Phil Reid Jr., who’s 10 years old and has been careening around in this big school bus since he was seven.

Jimmy Grieves, a veteran Cree guide, has a personal friendship with Bruiser, and he drove ahead of us in a beat-up old pickup truck. A kilometer or so from the lodge, Jimmy spotted Bruiser walking along the edge of a gravel pit, and we all stopped to watch. The bear sat, unmoving, and stared at us for a full ten minutes. Even at this distance, the bear looked huge, and when he got up and started walking towards Jimmy, the miners started clicking away with their disposable cameras. When the bear was only a few steps away, Jimmy raised his hand like a traffic cop and the bear stopped. Jimmy gave the bear a slice of bread, gestures, and the bear sat down. They looked at each other for a few moments. Then Jimmy said something in Cree and the bear lifted a paw in greeting. The communication between these two top-of-the-food chain mammals only lasted a moment, but it was pure magic, and the miners were utterly silent, absorbing it.

Escaping from death has made the miners open to the idea that there’s some indiscernible rhyme or magic afoot in the world. The day before they went into the mine, Blaine Mayhugh’s kids were playing in the yard and their soccer ball fell down a culvert. He promised to dig it out after work, but of course he never came home. During the rescue attempt, the families all gathered at the local fire hall, where they could be together when the news came in. During the most hopeless period of the rescue effort, when the drill snapped and lodged in the hole 110 feet underground, Leslie Mayhugh left the fire hall and went back to their house to get some clothes for the kids. As she drove home she prayed for a sign, any kind of sign that her husband was still alive. When she arrived, the soccer ball was sitting on the grass. Even hard-headed Tommy Foy can’t explain why they got so lucky. “Who knows? Maybe it was a miracle.”

At the rescue site, tough and highly skilled drill riggers worked for three days without sleep, trying to drive a 240-foot hole as straight as a plumb line through bedrock. It had to be straight or they’d miss the target, and it had to be clean or the rescue cage would jam on its way down. The odds of succeeding were slim. Even if they got lucky and hit the miner’s refuge, everyone thought the hole would break the seal in the air pocket; water would instantly flood the remainder of the mine and drown the miners. After two days of drilling, the bit broke and they spent hours trying to retrieve it, finally devising a way of hooking onto the 1,500 bit and finessing it back out of the hole. They kept drilling, and after 77 hours they finally burst into the mine.

When the drill broke through, the miners were asleep. Ronald Hileman heard a whistling noise, and peered behind the jerry-rigged wall they’d erected to separate them from the water. He saw light pouring down from a hole in the ceiling. He went back to the sleeping miners and said, “Hey, who wants to go home?”

The hole was 26 inches in diameter, a little wider than a steering wheel, and the cage they lowered down was only 22 inches wide. It was hard to imagine how a beefy guy like Randy Fogle was going to fit into the narrow cage, and there was also the thorny question of who was going to go up first. As crew chief, Fogle insisted on staying with his men, but he was having heart problems and the doctors above believed he wasn’t going to last. “We’re sending your fat ass up there,” Unger told his boss. “And if you don’t get up there, I’m going to hit you in the head with a rock.”

The miners assumed there might be a skeleton crew of men working topside; perhaps two dozen people at the most. But when Randy Fogle went up, the miners heard an oceanic roar of applause. They didn’t realize that thousands of people had descended on the Quecreek mine. Satellite trucks, floodlights, decompression chambers, helicopters, naval officers in crisp whites, the state Governor, and even Geraldo were waiting above. Their rescue had become a media event. Says Moe Popernack, “When Randy went up, it sounded like the Super Bowl.”

Each time a miner went up, the rescuers feared the cage would jam on its way back down, and the cable would break as they tried to free it. There was a good chance that each elevator ride to the top was the last one. Rather than arguing about who would go up next, the miners argued about who would stay behind.

Dark-haired and handsome Mark “Moe” Popernack, who is like one of those slow-talking, laconic studs portrayed in television advertisements for manly pickup trucks, stayed in the mine until the bitter end. In a world where lifelong friendships are destroyed by a careless remark, one has to speculate why Moe gambled his life for his workmates. “That’s just the way miners are,” he shrugged, sitting with his elbows on his knees in the cool evening air. “Everybody wanted to go up last, and I won the argument. My wife Sandy said, ‘I know Mark. He’ll come out last,’ and she was right.’”

Ascending in the cage, Moe watched the strata rolling past, each layer of sediment marking his journey back from eternity. Like the others, he was torn from the hole by the medical team. It was like a delivery. His filthy clothes were slashed off and he was swathed in blankets like an infant. The applause was thunderous. Ambulances swept him off to the hospital, to meet his family, and to start his new life.

Hollywood paid them each a handsome fee for their stories. Quick books were published, and the tour of TV talk shows began. During their ordeal, most of the miners vowed that they would never again go underground, and as the year passed, most of them stuck to their vow.

Tommy Foy went into the construction and foundation business. John Unger, who always wanted to be a farmer rather than a miner, tried to figure out how long a guy might raise cattle in today’s market before going broke. Randy Fogle missed mining work and the camaraderie, and thought about compromising a bit and becoming an underground safety inspector. Moe Popernack, however, was a third generation Appalachian coal miner and had a hard time quitting the mines.

“It’s hard to explain to somebody who has never worked underground,” he says. “But I love to mine coal. It’s just challenging, on a whole bunch of levels. Your job is to get that coal out, and the earth doesn’t want to give it up. It’s hard and dangerous and you have to use your head. If you get the system running right; if you get working together really smoothly like a team, you might load seven hundred tons of coal a day, which earns you a nice bonus. Mining coal is about the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.”  

A few months after the accident, Moe told his wife Sandy and told her he wanted to go back underground. “She told me, ‘Honey, do what you have to do.’”

But his two 10 and 11 year-old sons were spooked by it. “When they found out I was going back, they started having nightmares. They’d wake up crying, thinking that their daddy was trapped underground. I didn’t want to put them through that, so I promised I’d never go back.”

While their movie project was underway, actors came and stayed with them, followed them around and studied their lives. Script consultations and TV appearances kept them busy. But now a year has passed, and the spotlight has begun to fade. And that’s all right with them. “You get so you don’t want to talk about it anymore,” says John Unger. “It’s time to think about the future.”

Unger might be tired of talking about it. But everybody else at the lodge can’t get enough. Only basic courtesy prevents the rest of us from badgering them. Duncan is too shy to ask questions, but he watches the miners as they walk around the room, and he sits near them, quietly listening to everything they say. I’m guessing that his fertile boyish imagination is constantly projecting cinematic images of exploding walls, screaming miners, cold black rising water. He’s at that age where he’s beginning to realize that the world is a more dangerous place than he bargained for. Duncan and I share a bedroom at the cabin, and every night he piles a stack of pillows on his legs before he goes to sleep. “You want me to get rid of those pillows for you?” I asked him one night.

“No, that’s all right,” he replied, in his ordinary and scrupulously polite voice. He pointed up at the huge log beam in the ceiling. “I like to have the pillows there in case there’s a big storm and that log falls on me.”

 On our last day, there was a big farewell dinner. At the end of the evening, Moe Popernack quietly took me aside and told me that Phil and Liz-Ann, the owners of the Resort had just told him that he and the rest of the miners could come back again next year, on the house. “I would never be able to afford this trip on a coal-miner’s salary,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s is the best thing that’s happened to us since the accident.”

John Unger went outside for a few minutes, to breathe the night air. Miners tend to be stoics. They tend to believe that talking about emotions and inner fears only makes them worse. But Unger seems to have appointed himself as the designated philosopher of the group. He tends to give people a look that says, go ahead, shoot.

As we’re standing outside, listening to the sounds of the night, I asked him why he thought people respond so powerfully to stories like his. I told him I remembered when the little girl was trapped in the well in Texas. I told him I was traveling that day, but I spent the whole day listening to the radio. I had to know what happened.

“I remember that too,” he said. “I think people identify with the person who is trapped. We managed to get out of our predicament. So maybe people think it gives them a chance too.”     

Winnipeg is Burning

From Saturday Night magazine

 

 

The alarm bell in Winnipeg's Fire Hall #1 is surprisingly muted, a soft musical chime that sounds like a grandfather clock announcing the half-hour. Even if the firefighters are in the middle of dinner they drop their cutlery and gallop for the garage, climbing aboard the trucks at the same time the doors are rolling open. From the moment the bell rings until the trucks roar out onto the road, it takes about twenty seconds.

The neighbourhood around Fire Hall #1 is classical inner city - ancient wooden mansions, brownstone apartments and dumpsters scrawled with street-gang graffiti. Tonight, about six blocks east of here, a cop on his way home from work has spotted smoke pouring out the doorway of a gay bathhouse in Chinatown. The half naked patrons have scrambled out of the building and are shivering in the bitter cold. It's a 118 year-old heritage building, flanked by a venerable barber shop and a Chinese fireworks store, and when the fire crew arrives the fire has already gone to flashover and is venting itself. Two or three minutes is a delicious span of time for a fire that's got its teeth into an ancient building, and the first-in crew has no sooner run their lines when the fireworks shop explodes, breaking windows and broadcasting huge flames into the night sky. "We ducked for cover as soon as I arrived," says a cop on the scene. "It was popping like a machine gun."

Amidst the flashing lights and roiling smoke, a white Explorer weaves through the trucks and rolls to a stop. Charles Allsopp climbs out. He's a black middle-aged Barbadian with a shaved head and an athlete's easy walk. Moving through the crowd, he watches the flames pluming up into the darkness. He approaches a bystander. "How did the fire start?" No one seems to know. Charles is a quiet man, calm in face and demeanour, with a hooded jacket that hides the .40 caliber Glock on his belt. 

 

Ten units have responded by now, ladder rigs, pumpers and rescue trucks. The scene looks utterly chaotic, but everyone at this fire has a well-understood role. The branchman's job is to carry the nozzle, enter the building and meet the fire head-on. The captain's job is to stand behind the branchman, shout directions, and help to control the hose, which is too powerful for one man to subdue. Using a high-pressure fog of water droplets, they'll push a shield of cool air ahead of them. It's 1500 degrees in the building, unimaginably hot, twice as hot as the interior of a propane barbecue. But the high-pressure hose will push the fire away from them, and they'll use it to herd the monstrous heat, bully it down the corridor, and push it out the gaping hole that the ventilation team, with fire axes, has chopped in the downwind wall of the building. Out here on the street, it's the job of the Rapid Intervention Team to stand by to rescue anyone trapped inside the building. And over there in the crowd, it's Charles' job to find out who did this.

 

 The prairie around Winnipeg was once the floor of a prehistoric ocean. And by night, surrounded by all that darkness, the city glitters like a kingdom under the sea. It's a city of extremes, darkness and light, heat and cold. "I felt like I'd arrived in the Old Testament," says a writer who moved here from Toronto. "Every month brings another of the Seven Plagues - dust clouds, fire, flood. I've grown quite fond of it."

 

Isolation produces a sense of self-reliance. Winnipeg makes its own entertainment, and has such a thriving cultural scene that it's often called "the arts capital of Canada". Glen Murray, a stylish young political activist, is the first openly gay mayor in the country. It has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, a top-ranked university, and an over-supply of elegant old homes. That's the good side.

 

It's also "the arson capital of Canada", a place where large segments of the inner city are collapsing into decay and crime. In some neighbourhoods it seems like half of the houses are either vacant or condemned. On the boarded-up doors, kids spray-paint a simple message - "Burn Me.” Last year 1,703 arson fires caused $10 million in damage and killed seven people.

Police say that many of the arsonists are bored kids who set dumpsters on fire just to watch the alarms and bells. Others are middle-aged businessmen who burn buildings to defraud insurance companies. Some of the worst offenders are transient mental patients, who light fires for their own mysterious reasons. Last year fire fighters were working around the clock, battling up to eight arsons a night. In October, all three levels of government met at City Hall and brainstormed solutions. At the civic level, the Mayor committed to cleaning up the back alleyways, to rid the city of abandoned sofas and piles of flammable trash. At the federal level Lloyd Axworthy offered to send in Canadian Forces troops and water bombers. (One veteran detective had an even better idea. "Why doesn't he just invoke the War Measures Act and we can really clean up the city?") Academics offered the usual insights - that the arson fires were only symptoms, and that nothing would improve in Winnipeg's inner city until all three levels of government addressed the poverty cycle.

 

But social theories weren't going to put the fires out. So city council launched a joint force of cops and fire investigators who, theoretically, would identify the arsonists and get them off the street. Detective Sergeant Phil Lexier was appointed to head the squad. Lexier is a 41 year-old street cop who spent 18 years in a cruiser car before becoming a detective. He's a hipster cop who wears an ear ring, rides a chopped Harley, and knows countless shop owners and street people by first name. Lexier and his 15-man team of cops, fire commissioners and firemen took over a vacant room in the basement of Fire Hall #1. They called themselves the "Arson Strike Force" - a good working title, but they didn't even have a telephone. Scrounging up some portable radios, computers, file cabinets, and desks, they built a half-decent squad room and got down to work. "Arson has the reputation of being a notoriously difficult crime to investigate," says Lexier. "And to tell you the truth, we didn't know where to begin. But we were determined that no one was going to be killed by an arson fire on our watch."

Like a football team, the Arson squad broke itself into two cadres with quite different mandates. The firefighters took on the job of investigating each fire, and determining if arson was involved. Then they passed the evidence to the police members of the team, who investigated each arson as a criminal offence. The team eliminated a lot of red tape by working in the same room together, and being able to transfer jurisdictions just by walking across the floor.

They drew up shifts so that someone was on duty twenty-four hours a day. When the fire trucks went roaring out the door, the firefighters and police jumped into separate vehicles and followed the equipment to the scene. When they arrived, the plainclothes officer mingled with the crowd, while the fire commissioner suited up and waded into the fire. The fire commissioner (or "fire marshal", as they are called in some provinces) is usually a seasoned, middle-aged guy, a lone wolf type, a difficult and often fervently-committed specialist with a battery of odd skills and an almost shamanistic understanding of fire behaviour. If the fire commissioner suspected arson, he came out of the burning building and gave the cop the nod.

"From that point on, it was basic, shoe-leather police work,” says Lexier. “We would look for familiar faces in the crowd, people who seemed evasive in their manner or overly helpful. If there was no one around, we'd knock on doors, get people out of bed, ask them if they'd seen anyone hanging around. Nobody gets mad at us for waking them up. People are so upset about these fires that they're willing to help out."

Sometimes the cops got lucky. Arsonists like seeing the results of their work. And often the person who lit the fire was amongst the crowd of bystanders. “When you talk to a suspect,” says Lexier. “it’s surprising how often they'll come right out and admit it. A lot of these people are seeking attention, and they'll even settle for the negative kind.”

Back at the squad room, the investigators assembled a gallery of local arsonists, "The Wall of Flame." Firebugs tend to fall into three broad groups - kids, crooked businessmen, and the mentally ill, and you don't need a program to sort out the faces. At the end of October, the investigators mounted a new face on the Wall. He was a 50 year-old white male who was spotted leaving the scene of a fire in downtown Winnipeg. Someone had gone into Holy Trinity Church and lit a fire in a straw creche. A pair of constables spot-checked the 50 year-old man as he was leaving the scene. He seemed innocent enough, and said that he was a former police officer. He didn't, however, have an explanation for the incendiary materials in his pocket.

The cops arrested him. But there was no evidence directly linking him to the fire, so the crown dropped the charges. But the members of Arson Strike Force mounted his photograph on the wall. A while later, the employees at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre got a visit from a polite, middle-aged white male who engaged them in religious debate. At closing time they locked up the building, but an hour later, a fire erupted in the stairwell. The firefighters arrived in time to keep the damage down to a quarter of a million dollars. After the fire, the detectives showed the museum staff a gallery of mug shots, and they chose the photograph of the 50 year-old white male who'd been detained at Holy Trinity Church. Still, the fact that he visited the building didn't prove that he started the fire.

In the smoldering ruins, the detectives found some dried spots of blood. It was potentially valuable as DNA evidence, but they needed to match it with a sample from a suspect. In the meantime, says Lexier, “We were getting very nervous about this guy. We figured it was just a matter of time until he killed somebody.”

The cops decided to watch him, day and night. On November 22, in the blustery cold hours of the evening, the suspect (T-1) came walking out of the Manwin Hotel on Main Street, and a cop in plainclothes fell in behind him. Four minutes later, the plainclothesman broke off the pursuit and a second officer picked it up. Every four minutes the eight-man pursuit team switched off. It was a rolling grid, boxed off by cops behind, ahead, and on parallel streets. For hours T-1 padded through the city, with the invisible cage around him.

Every few blocks he ducked erratically through a gas bar or an alleyway, displaying the behavior of a man who doesn't want anyone following him. At eleven p.m., after five hours of non-stop prowling, he returned to his hotel room. The surveillance team watched the hotel all night - keeping out of sight, peeing in juice bottles, unable to surrender to the tedium for a minute lest their man feel the urge to go for an early-hours walk and burn down a building with someone in it. At 0600, the day shift arrived. Three hours later, T-1 emerged from the hotel. The cops followed him into the heart of the city. In his pockets he carried gasoline-soaked rags and bottles of home-made napalm.

In the early afternoon, the suspect went into the University of Winnipeg, entered the cafeteria and bought a glass of juice. He sat down with a group of students and engaged them in religious debate. The undercover team watched from a distance. After twenty minutes, T-1 got up and left his glass on the table, with his saliva on the rim. One of the cops lifted the glass, bagged it, and slipped it carefully into his pocket. The undercover people followed him away from the campus, then nodded him off to a team from Major Crimes, who jumped out of a car and cuffed him.

He’s now undergoing psychiatric assessment in PX-3, the lock-down ward at the Health Science Centre. The psych ward is a new facility, sleek and airy, with a soaring atrium, tile floors, lush palm trees, and a genteel relaxation area with pool tables and wide screen TV. To enter, you step into a portcullis surrounded by shatter-proof glass, where the ward orderly gives you a good once-over before unlocking the door. In anticipation of my arrival, T-1 is standing by the front desk. He's a graying, fit-looking, middle-aged gent who could easily pass for a doctor who's making his rounds before heading off to the lake. He strides forward, presents his hand. “So nice to meet you," he says. "Can I interest you in a cup of coffee?”

Over the course of a long conversation, he talks about politics, books, literature, and the merits of Winnipeg as opposed to other places he has lived. But he studiously refuses to discuss the allegations against him - 24 charges of arson in Winnipeg, and a long trail of suspected arsons in other cities, including four church fires in Toronto. "I really prefer not to talk about that," he says. "If you don't mind."

When it's time to say goodbye, he decides to issue a sort of formal press release. "I'd like to say one thing," he says, squaring his shoulders. "This is really an exceptional facility. I have no hesitation in saying that the staff have treated me very well indeed."

He watches with satisfaction as I write down these comments. Now he needs something in return. "If you come back tomorrow, could you bring me some cigarettes? And some matches?"

 

Investigators rely on an old axiom: "there's no such thing as useless information.”

All physical evidence has to be examined, no matter how gruesome. This morning the physical evidence is the charred corpse of a 49 year-old woman. Yesterday, she attended a drinking party and passed out. Shortly after she fell asleep the bedroom caught fire. Now the Arson Strike Force has a number of questions: Did she really die in the fire? Was the fire used to conceal a homicide? The woman's dead, so she can't tell them. But perhaps her body can.

 The body is lying on a metal tray in the autopsy room at Winnipeg's Health Science Centre. It resembles a huge upside down beetle, the hair burned off, and the arms cocked in the standard pugilistic pose of a burn victim. From a set of stereo speakers in the corner, Chet Baker mumbles dreamily as the pathologist's assistant saws open her thorax and removes a placard of rib and muscle tissue. Present in the room are the uniformed cops who responded to the house, a Registered Nurse who works as an investigator for the Medical Examiner's office, a police identification man with a large complicated-looking camera, and Bill Harrow, of the Arson Strike Force. As the autopsy gets underway, Bill Harrow busily scribbles down notes. He's only been with the Arson Strike Force for a couple of months, and this is his first autopsy.  “I didn't know that we'd be doing this, this morning," he tells me. "So I'm glad we didn't have a big breakfast."

 The pathologist's assistant pulls out a slithery mass of entrails and dumps them into a plastic bag. Dutifully, Bill Harrow leans over and studies the opened belly, which is furrowed with a number of wounds that resemble knife slashes. The pathologist says, "Those are just splits in the skin caused by radiant heating. Like when you heat a wiener on a grill? What we need to do is look for indications of whether she was alive when the fire started."

Across the room, another naked body is lying on a metal table. "By way of comparison, look at this one," says the doctor, leading us over to the corpse. The other body is also female, approximately seventy-five years old. She has rosy cheeks and flamboyant silvery hair and you'd probably describe her as a fine-looking and healthy woman if she wasn’t dead. A rather bored-looking lab assistant is sawing a slab of bone and muscle tissue out of the wall of her chest. "Have a look at this normal muscle tissue," the doctor says.

It's a hearty-looking shade of red. The doctor leads us back to the charred corpse, where we examine the same muscle wall. It's the colour of blue steak. “That's an indicator of elevated carbon monoxide,” he says. Transecting her windpipe, he shows us charred tissue on the interior wall. “She was breathing super-heated air," he says. "And it scorched her esophagus. That's an indicator that she was still alive when the fire started. We also have to consider the amount of carbon monoxide in her blood.  A carboxy hemoglobin level of up to six or seven percent could be caused by life style, perhaps heavy smoking. But the carboxy hemoglobin level in her blood is twenty-six percent.”

“And what does that suggest?”

“She was killed by smoke inhalation.”

Bill Harrow is madly scribbling notes, and taking an occasional glance at the blackened cadaver. He's one of three fire commissioners attached to the Arson Strike Force. Their job is an odd hybrid of firefighter and police detective. Bill got his start as a volunteer fireman. Ken Swan came up through the ranks of the police department. The third member of their clique is Roger Gillis, a hawk-eyed, intense character who is fiercely secretive of the tricks of their trade.

Back at the Fire Hall, Harrow discusses the autopsy with Ken and Roger. They work on the adversary system, as in a courtroom, and they're forever shooting down each other's theories. Bill Harrow is in charge of the fatal house fire, and he's trying to do a perfect investigation. But he's the least experienced of the three, and has the slightly defensive manner of a grad student getting hazed by his superiors.

"We're merciless with each other," Roger admits. "Bill will propose a theory, and I'll attack it, and then Ken will propose an entirely different theory, and we’ll both attack that. You should see us sometimes, standing inside some filthy burned-out building, yelling at each other. Sometimes we get so carried away we almost come to blows. But that's the way it is. If somebody can't stand the heat then get out of the kitchen."

The autopsy indicates that the woman died of smoke inhalation. But Ken Swan points out that death by smoke inhalation doesn't necessarily mean she wasn't murdered. Swan is a lumbering, boyish, good-natured ex-cop who doesn't trust what's right there in front of him. "You don't need a knife or a gun to murder your girlfriend," Swan says. "All you need is a pack of matches."

They go back to the burned house to search for clues. It might seem like a hopeless task - three helmeted men, flashlighting their way through the blackened rubble. But a house burns in a predictable way. And any departure from the script makes them suspicious. "When a house fire is happy it burns at about fourteen hundred degrees," says Ken Swan. "That building will contains hundreds of metal types, rubbers, plastics, and paints, and we know how each one behaves in a fire. Take copper pipe, for example. Copper pipe doesn’t melt until nineteen hundred and eighty-one degrees. So if I find melted copper pipe in a house, that makes me think, something isn’t right. Why did this room burn so hot? What happened here?” 

When they analyze a fire scene, they're not interested in "how" the fire started. "Forget the how," says Roger. "That comes later, much later. When we first go into a building, we're just thinking about 'where'."

The air inside the burned house is damp and foul smelling. The smashed windows have been boarded over, so it's utterly black. Fallen floor joists and charred furniture lie in tangles on the swampy carpet, and you have to pick your way carefully, following their flashlight beams through the drifting soot. The fire commissioners love it in here. It's their workplace. Ken Swan carries a huge axe and when he wants to examine something, he uses it to smash apart the walls or the floors. If somebody sets a fire deliberately, he's an unlucky man to find these three characters on his trail. "I love putting arsonists in jail," says Roger, with a wolfish smile. "I get paid to do this, but I'd do it for free."

Ken Swan is a diplomatic and even-tempered man who admits that there are ways of outfoxing the fire commissioners. He asks me, "Do you want to know how to burn a building so we can't catch you?" 

Roger objects. “Don’t tell him that!”

“He’ll be fine.”

“I don’t trust anybody,” Roger snaps,

Ken persists, and as he explains the method, Roger shakes his head in disgust.

"You can't print that," Roger says, which is how he prefaces any conversation about his profession. "If you print that I'm going to have zero respect for you as a human being.”

“I won’t print it.”

“You better not. I'm not worried about the ten year-old kid who's out setting dumpsters on fire. He doesn't read magazines. I'm worried about the landlord who wants to burn down his fourplex. Right now, we know a lot more tricks than he does. And I intend to keep it that way."

So they prowl through the building, hunting for the source. Fire travels upward, so they chop the floors apart to find the lowest point of burning. Or they can scan the ceilings, examine the smoke patterns, and scrutinize melted objects to determine the direction of the greatest heat. "It might look like a big mess," Ken Swan admits. "But every physical object in this room is a piece of evidence. For example, that light bulb, do you see how it’s melted? The bulge on the side of the light bulb points in the direction where the fire started.”

Roger gestures to a plume of smoke damage on the wall. Smoke plumes are arrow-shaped, and the sharp end points towards the hotspot. Mysterious disk-shaped patterns on the floor are footprints, showing where the feet of the bed shadowed the hardwood flooring from the terrific heat. Collecting the evidence, they reconstruct the puzzle. Once they find the "where", they move on to the "how." They propose hypotheses of how the fire might have started at this precise spot. Was it faulty wiring? What if there are no wires nearby? Was it a cigarette? If the victim was asleep, who was smoking the cigarette? Was the cigarette tossed on the couch deliberately? They argue with each other, and fit the pieces together. With the addition of each new piece of evidence, a picture begins to appear.

They visualize this darkened bedroom, late at night, a bit of light in the doorway and beer bottles on the floor. Amongst a heap of rumpled blankets on the bed, the woman sleeps. Voices downstairs, shouts, echoes of loud music. On the couch, there's a glowing ember from a cigarette, and a rising wisp of smoke.

A cigarette discarded like this will gradually eat a hole in the foam rubber. The cigarette will sink into the mattress and disappear. As the foam rubber melts, it exudes a flammable liquid, which eventually bursts into flame. This is the first act of the fire, the “incipient stage”. For a full minute or more, there's still nothing to worry about. The fire is tiny. The temperature in the room is normal, and the air contains its usual 21% quotient of oxygen. But burning rubber leads to more burning rubber. And as the fire spreads into the rest of the couch, the room fills with unburned gases and tarry fuel droplets – “smoke”. At the ceiling level, the temperature rises quickly. And as the couch burns avidly, expelling more smoke, the tarry fuel layer descends, drawing closer to the open flames.

At this stage, the woman still has two or three minutes to wake up and scramble out of the room. “Survival is still possible at the incipient stage,” says Roger. “But you have to stay on the floor. At head-height, the smoke is so thick that you’ll lose consciousness in the two or three steps it takes you to reach the door.”

When the smoke layer descends low enough, the open flames ignite the tarry fuels and the upper layer of the room goes into “rollover”. Roger was exposed to this phenomenon when he entered the "flashover chamber" at the firefighting college in Brandon, Manitoba. “You put on your suit and go into the chamber, crouch down on the floor and watch the flames rolling across the ceiling. You can’t touch the guy beside you. Because it’s about a thousand degrees in there, and the fabric of his suit will burn his skin."

During rollover, transparent slow-motion flames dance back and forth across the ceiling, flooding the pitch-black room with an eerie orange light. Firefighters call rollover “the dance of the angels”, because it's a warning sign to anyone who is watching that they’re getting very close to the doorway of heaven. Once rollover starts, a person has a very short time to get out of the room. In seconds, something terrible is going to happen.

Rollover causes a dramatic and instantaneous increase in the upper room temperature. The temperature jumps up to 1100 degrees, whereupon sufficient heat is radiated downwards to ignite all the material in the room – hardwood floors, carpets, wallboards, furniture, even human bodies, which because of their fatty tissue, ignite like presto-logs. This is called the “flashover” stage. In flashover, the room virtually explodes into flame, blowing out windows and transforming the house into an inferno.

 

It's the end of the day, and the Fire Commissioners are back at the squad room.

The members of the Arson Strike Force are here - Phil Lexier, Charles Allsopp, Andy Burgess, Bob Christmas, and the others. Bill Harrow has assembled his evidence on the fatal house fire, and it's been cross-checked and challenged by his partners.

The burned house, the charred body, the testimony or witnesses, the eyewitness accounts of the firefighters who first responded to the scene -- they all contribute to Bill's conclusion that the fire was an accident, a drunkenly discarded cigarette. But that's just one case. They examined three other sites today. One of them seems to be another accident - an old-timer plugged too many electrical cords into the kitchen outlet and went shopping. When he returned his house was on fire and his three dogs were dead. They've caught themselves an arsonist, though. A woman from Vancouver bought a revenue house in Winnipeg, then apparently got tired of traveling back and forth, taking care of it. She insured it with a Vancouver company for $250,000 (It's worth about $60,000.) and then set it on fire when no one was home, scattering paint cans around to make it look like the local kids torched it.

Now the Fire Commissioners are boxing her up like a parcel. They have eyewitness testimony from the hardware store where she bought the disposable lighter and the starter fluid. ("Why does she need a lighter?" says Ken Swan. "She doesn't smoke.") They've ridden the bus to measure the time between the store and the house. An RCMP forensic locksmith has examined the interior of the door lock to ascertain that it was opened with a proper key. They've searched the neighbourhood for blocks around, rummaging through backyards to look for a discarded sales slip. After putting it all together, they confronted her and she confessed. "She thought she was going back to Vancouver with a cheque for a quarter of a million dollars," says Roger. "But instead, she's lost her house and she's locked up in jail. Not too bright."

Every night the firefighters upstairs organize a communal meal. Everyone kicks in a few dollars and for a while, there's a fine atmosphere of conviviality in the big lunch room. The members of the Strike Force know that an alarm can come in at any time, so they tend to eat quickly, squeezing in comic anecdotes between the lasagna and the Caesar salad. Phil Lexier, the cop who's in charge of all this, couldn't be happier with the results of the last four or five months of work. "The arson fires have dropped way off," he says. "We've gone from like, eight fires a night, to periods of time when we don't have an arson for two, three nights in a row."

Roger Gillis agrees. "We've finally got the time to work cases properly. Right now, I feel sorry for anyone who tries to light an arson fire in Winnipeg."

A firefighter named Marc Proulx has joined the Strike Force for dinner. He operates a program called "Youth Fire Stop", in which he meets with kids who have lit fires, befriends them, takes them to the fire hall to meet the firefighters, and tries to explain how dangerous fire is. "It makes an impression on the kids. They're not bad-intentioned, they're just bored. I check up with them, and if they've behaved themselves, I give them tickets to the Children's Museum. I saw one of my kids the other day, he ran up and hugged me. That's the pay-off, for me."

Two hundred and fifty kids have been through the Youth Fire Stop program. And so far, only three have reoffended. "We seem to be getting on top of the problem," says Phil Lexier. "But I'm concerned about what's going to happen when the hot weather comes. I've been a copper long enough to know that these things never go away, they just die down for a while."

He no sooner says this when the musical chime starts to ring, and Lexier's forkful of lasagna pauses in front of his mouth. The pleasant voice in the loudspeaker announces a Code Four telephone alarm, which is almost certainly a working fire, the real thing. “Let’s go boys,” says Lexier. "They're playing our song."

Nine Men Out

 

from The Globe and Mail

 

On his first night in Winnipeg Tommy Foy thought he was going to spend the night in jail.

 

He said that he and Blaine Mayhugh had closed a bar and were walking home when the cops stopped them. With their Popeye arms and flat-top crew cuts Foy and Mayhugh probably looked like a couple of gassed-up soldiers out looking for bother, and the police no doubt would have spotted them even if they weren’t walking through oncoming traffic in the middle of the road.

“The cop said, ‘where are you going?’ And I said we wuz lost,” Tommy Foy said.

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