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At approximately 7:30am on Friday, May 20th in my hometown of Seal Beach, California, my deep sleep was rudely awakened by the sound of sirens. I chose to ignore it until I realized that by 7:50am, the sirens still hadn’t come to an end. About twelve text messages from fellow Seal Beach locals made my heart sink and my photographer’s instinct kick at the same time. Ruby’s Diner at the end of my beloved Seal Beach pier had burst into flames. I decided to take the only action I could: I grabbed my camera bag, ran down to the pier, and began documenting the hopeless chaos.

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By 8:00am, the fire was still blazing and hundreds of Seal Beach locals were watching with great fear. It seemed as if the pier in its entirety was in jeopardy, meaning thousands of wonderful memories of walks with friends, family, and loved ones, were about to disappear right before our eyes. Onlookers on north side of the pier were told to clear the area to avoid the thick smoke that the wind was blowing towards the houses on the sand down the north side of Ocean Avenue, also known as the Gold Coast.

While photographing the scene as it unfolded, I began to remember late night pier jumps with my friends over the years, watching high school boys ask their girlfriends to school dances by writing “Prom?” or “Formal?” on the sand, and watching newly married couples take their first walk as a married couple while having their photos taken. My mind then went to a darker place; in October of 2012, a horrifying shooting that killed nine innocent people in Salon Meritage, a local and family owned salon. A memorial heart was built just behind the north side parking lot of the beach. Many Seal Beach residents knew somebody that was killed in the shooting; any visitor or local can see people today wearing shirts with a blue heart with the words “Support In Love” written inside, memorializing those who perished in the tragedy. I couldn’t help but think that the onlookers of this tragedy had the same thing in mind: Could this really be happening? Please God, don’t take our pier.

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Around 8:45am, a second firetruck began backing onto the pier to assist the fireman boats in putting out the fire. The entire Seal Beach Police force was regulating Ocean Avenue ensuring the safety of their city’s civilians. My time to photograph was running short due time my commute to Downtown Los Angeles for work at 10:00am. By 9:00am, the orange flames had turned to thick black smoke, and the fire had been extinguished. The rest of the beloved Seal Beach pier had been saved.

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Being a photographer during the fire completely changed my level of urgency on what the outcome could have been. Documenting an event with such catastrophic potential should have been a more frightening and potentially pivotal moment in my life as a Seal Beach local. However, as many documentary photographers and filmmakers know, regardless of whether or not there’s a camera in your hand, there’s almost always nothing you can do to stop what’s happening. It scares me how my passion for my work can replace my sense of urgency for such an event as the pier fire. Had the fire become more serious, had people been in danger, would I have stopped photographing? My gut tells me no, absolutely not. Once you dedicate your life to photography, no matter what specialty you choose, all of us should feel that same sense of urgency as image makers to document such events regardless of emotional connection.

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To my fellow photographers, if you find yourself questioning whether or not you should be photographing something that’s happening before you, get your camera and get your butt out there. People may have their phones out trying to photograph and film what’s taking place, and you may even be emotionally compromised, but your intention is for the greater good. Talk to other civilians and get a sense of how they feel about what’s going on. It will not only solidify your feelings, but it will make you pay attention to multiple angles of the scene. I learned a lot about myself as a photographer that day, and while I was terrified of losing my beloved pier, I still would’ve photographed its demise had it occurred.

Katie Bickerstaff
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Katie Bickerstaff

Author

I’m a photographer from Seal Beach, California. I love getting to know people through photography; it’s one thing that truly connects us all regardless of our personalities and circumstances. I look forward to a life full of learning, love, and compassion.

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