"It feels as if the story is now old, to everyone... except those living through it."
-Diane McLean, May 20, 2015
"You have to give bad news... that's bad news"
The 58-year-old single mom had hoped against hope that what she saw in the photographs and on the news was that the building where she lived for three decades was spared, and it was the building next to theirs that had fallen. It wasn't until the next day, when she saw the smoldering rubble with her own eyes, that it was her building which had collapsed in the sudden, deadly 2nd Avenue, East Village explosion and fire that took two lives and left scores homeless.
She told me: "I was in denial, I said no, that can't be, it must be the angle or the lighting, but I knew, I'd seen that building in every angle every lighting for 35 years. The next day I went to see, and it was just knocked down, it was in rubble... it was very sad."
The next night, when Diane had to give the unspeakably tragic news to the kids, who thought their building was OK, Dr McLean mustered all of her child psychiatrist training, telling them:
Kids, I have some bad news, the firemen did everything they could for our building, more than 250 firemen came, they checked every building to make sure everybody was out, they checked everything to make sure as many people as they could find were safe.
And, they sprayed water and they had all the fire engines, and they did the top fire alarm, to save the buildings that were on fire, and save our building, but they weren't able to...and our building fell down. I was crying we were all crying, because it was sad.
It's been two months since I sat on a park bench in Tompkins Square Park and Diane McLean told me the story of how her life changed forever, in an instant.
Her kids played on the jungle gym and swings with their friends, the steady din of laughter in the distance wafted through the cool air, reminding me of when my son was that age, without a care in the world.
When we survive the unsurvivable, there is a pearl of a gift hidden within the ashes of loss, a gossamer thread which connects us all. As if to say, I have gone before you, and I have survived, and so can you.
I saw Diane on the 11 o'clock news surrounded by fire trucks and chaos, with three small children clinging to her as she talked to ABC's Jim Dolan, who is the most compassionate, old school journalist.
There was something about her. I felt compelled to find her, to tell her story so she wouldn't just disappear into the callous anonymity of the 24 hour news cycle.
I have filmed so many people who have suffered sudden loss, and I know there is great healing in telling their stories, I've always felt it was incumbent upon me to bear witness. We can overcome anything as long as there is hope.
Diane spoke with a confident resilience, belying her circumstance. I was in awe of her 'mom improvisation' skills, and I couldn't help but think that Rose, James and Annabelle were the luckiest kids in the world.
She told me: "We talked about home, what is home? You just have to think about it, you have to reassess. Home is where your heart is, and where your family is, and that's us. We have our inner home, the home of our hearts... we are going to find a lot of new homes."
This is something perhaps learned in the prisons where she had worked as a psychiatrist, or the tough neighborhoods she'd served in helping underprivileged kids. It was I who lef uplifted.
And then, she said something that touched me so deeply. My parents (both gone) worked at Walt Disney Studios in the Golden Years -- on Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Cinderella.
Friends where they were staying took them to see Cinderella, and in the film, Diane recalled, Cinderella's mother told her before she passed away, "You should have courage and kindness in your heart." By now we were both crying. She told me: "Cinderella's mom gave her really good advice. We're New Yorkers, we have courage and we have kindness to give out to other people, and we're receiving so much kindness, and with that, we can rebuild, we can do it."
A few weeks ago, Diane and her children found their 'second new home', in Bushwick. They are starting to rebuild, slowly but surely, through the 'kindness's of total strangers. To learn more, click here.
The courage and kindness of New Yorkers never ceases to amaze me.
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