A Fire, A Grieving Family, and the Kind Strangers Who Saved Photos—and Memories

When photos are all that remain after an unthinkable tragedy, a team of experts cleans away the ashes.

july aug 2015 everyday heroesCourtesy Evan Krape/University of DelawareOn December 26, 2014, a fierce fire engulfed the home of Terry Harris, 60, in Washington Court House, Ohio. Terry’s grandsons Kenyon, 14, Broderick, 11, and Braylon, nine, were spending Christmas night with her. She and the three children died in the fire and subsequent collapse of the ranch-style house.

Sick with grief, Terry’s son Ricky Harris and his wife, Traci, the boys’ parents, welcomed friends into their home, just down the street from where Ricky’s mother’s house had once stood. One of them was Michael J. Emmons Jr., who’d driven eight hours from Newark, Delaware, to comfort Ricky, an old high school buddy.

“When I heard the news, I felt deeply for him,” Michael says.

On the garage floor of the Harrises’ house, a relative had laid out more than 200 charred and waterlogged photographs, including shots of the boys wearing their basketball and wrestling uniforms or posing for class pictures, salvaged from the fire. Michael, a doctoral student in preservation studies at the University of Delaware, saw in the sad scene an opportunity to help. He called Debra Norris, chair of the university’s art conservation department, for advice on how to save the photos.

“I thought she would recommend a restoration service,” says Michael. Instead, she asked him to ship the photos to her right away.

Every day for two weeks, Debra, along with ten photo-preservation graduate students and dozens of other faculty and local conservators, meticulously cleaned soot and debris off the images with tiny brushes and foam cosmetic sponges. An alcohol solution removed tougher grime.

Three months later, Debra and Michael delivered a box of restored photos to the bereaved parents.

“I would love to see my mom’s face, knowing that all these people cared,” Ricky says. These are things you don’t know about wildfires.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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