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Here’s how a Sun photographer caught a fiery fall at historic Baltimore church

Part of the steeple collapses at an East Baltimore church fire that went to 4 alarms on Saturday, March 28, 2020.
Part of the steeple collapses at an East Baltimore church fire that went to 4 alarms on Saturday, March 28, 2020. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

When I was studying photojournalism in the early 1980s, my professors at Ohio University had a catchphrase: "F8 and be there.”

It refers to a particular aperture setting on a camera. To me, it means: When you’re in the right place at the right time, have your camera ready.

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That guidance has stuck with me as a Baltimore Sun visual journalist — and particularly on my shift the morning of March 28, when I photographed the spire plunging to the ground amid a blaze at the historic Urban Bible Fellowship Church.

That day, I had expected to look for feature photos that could run in The Sun’s “Picturing Maryland” daily series.

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I was still at home in Baltimore County when Senior Visuals Content Editor Leeann Adams called me about the church fire on the 1200 block of E. Eager St. in East Baltimore.

Could I get there ASAP?

It was a nearly half-hour drive, and I worried that I’d get there too late.

Even from a distance away, I could see the smoke and flames. However, several streets were closed. As I got closer, it was obvious that dozens of firefighters were working to extinguish the blaze.

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I grabbed my jacket and my Nikon 850 with the 28-300 mm lens and jumped out of the car into a steady rain. The church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was still blocks away. The entire area was a chaotic scene of fire trucks, police cars, ladders, hoses, water and onlookers.

Suddenly, there was an audible crack. Fortunately, I had the camera ready and aimed in the right direction. From the middle of a nearby street, I photographed the steeple as it came crashing down. I looked at the exposure without fully realizing what I had captured.

A fire at the Urban Bible Fellowship Church Saturday morning caused part of the steeple to fall.

The pouring rain made it impossible to carefully check the camera without damaging it. Much later, safely in my car, I noticed a sequence of six pictures captured by the motor drive. I chose this frame because of the position of the falling pieces. From the car, I sent photographs back to the news desk via a laptop.

Later that morning I found the Rev. John Williams of the Urban Bible Fellowship standing in a parking lot watching the fire. I expressed my condolences, and he graciously agreed to be interviewed. I’m very grateful that no one was injured.

The zoom lens was at 150 mm and the ISO was 1250. The shutter speed was 1/1600 with an aperture of 6.3.

Photo technology has changed a lot since my college years. Then, we worked with film; today it’s all digital and mobile. But the wisdom of “F8 and be there” still rings true.

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