Friday, October 31, 2014

The Fiery Curse of Crying Boy Paintings

Here’s a spooky story for your Halloween: A supposedly cursed series of art prints blamed for fires that destroyed everything except those prints.

The “Crying Boy” paintings attributed to Italian artist Bruno Amadio feature tearful children staring mournfully from the canvas. Copies of the paintings were mass-produced by the thousands. In 1985, after unburned copies of the paintings were found amid the rubble of burned buildings, stories began circulating that the prints were cursed.

The saga of the cursed Crying Boy paintings began with a house fire in which a framed Crying Boy print survived unscathed. But what gave the tale legs was a firefighter’s claim that this was not the first instance in which a Crying Boy print survived an otherwise destructive fire. The story was first published by the U.K. tabloid The Sun, which, of course, is not widely known for its credible journalism. Nevertheless, the story caught the attention of a public fascinated by all things paranormal. On September 5, 1985, The Sun reported that numerous readers claimed that they, too, had fallen victim to the accursed artwork. There were even reports that firefighters refused to hang Crying Boy prints in their own homes and fire stations.

Investigators determined that the fires involving Crying Boy prints resulted from pretty normal causes: carelessly discarded cigarettes, space heaters placed too close to combustible materials, cooking fires, and so on. But the mystery continued to swirl: How did the Crying Boy prints survive the fires when little else did?

Eventually it was determined that the prints were coated with a kind of varnish that was difficult to ignite. Additionally, some of the prints may have fallen from walls during the fires and landed face down, which would protect them from the flames.

There are many online accounts of the Crying Boy Curse; just type that term into Google and see what pops up. For a full and well-researched account of the subject, I recommend a July 2008 article in the U.K. magazine Fortean Times by David Clarke titled “The Curse of the Crying Boy: Could a kitsch print bring fiery disaster to its owners?”

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Words Make a Difference

Last week, I ran across a news story in which the writer described firefighters using “self-controlled breathing apparatus.” The correct term, of course, is “self-contained breathing apparatus” (also known as SCBA). My initial thought was, Really? In a direct quote from an experienced firefighter, how can you not get that right?

I decided this was worth a little exploration into how and why writers often get fire service terminology wrong.

First, the writer’s name was unfamiliar to me, so I’m guessing he is new to the organization. (I read a lot of articles on that particular news outlet's website, so I tend to recognize names that have or have not been around a while.) His writing style also indicated that he’s likely a younger person, maybe just out of college, and not a veteran reporter.

Reporters have a tough job. They can be assigned to cover anything from rubber duck races to major disasters, and are expected to get all the facts correct, even if they lack experience with a given topic. Young writers and reporters are at more of a disadvantage simply because they haven’t been on the planet long enough to accumulate a broad base of knowledge. They sometimes have a steep learning curve that, unfortunately, plays out in the public eye.

But what if this isn’t a young guy? What if this error was a result of what I call “not knowing what you don’t know”?

Everyone knows something. However, people are also susceptible to thinking they know something when, in fact, they don’t. We’ve all seen that human trait in action; just a few days ago, I observed a guy who publicly berated elected officials by trotting out “facts” that he was convinced were true but actually weren’t. When a person doesn’t know something, he or she usually won’t realize it until someone else sets that person straight.

I’ve seen this a lot with writers trying to describe firefighting. People think that because they’ve seen Backdraft and Chicago Fire, they’ve got this firefighting thing down pat. No need for actual research. Or maybe they do research, but their sources are flawed or otherwise not credible, or they misinterpret the information. Sometimes I think they discard research in favor of drama. Why let facts get in the way of a good story?

So it’s entirely possible that this particular writer thought he knew what SCBA stood for when he really didn’t.

It’s also possible, but in my mind unlikely, that the firefighter misspoke and unintentionally used the wrong word. We’re all guilty of those moments when the brain outpaces the mouth and out pops something we didn’t mean to say. But SCBAs are a crucial part of protective gear. Firefighters spend so much time drilling with SCBA from the moment they set foot in a fire academy that the terminology becomes ingrained. Using incorrect vocabulary in this case is tantamount to getting your own name wrong.

Another possibility is sloppy note-taking. I use my own shorthand when jotting notes during interviews; in some cases, one abbreviation can stand for different things depending on context. This is where experience comes in. I’ve been a compulsive note-taker my whole life, so deciphering my own scribbles really isn’t difficult. But maybe this guy doesn’t quite have his system down yet. Maybe he wrote down something like “self cont. breath. app.” and later mistook the “cont.” to mean “controlled” instead of “contained.”

Or perhaps the writer simply had one of those frustrating misfires between brain and keyboard. It happens.

Regardless of the reason(s) behind this writer’s mistake, it’s still a mistake that can cause a reader to suspect the writer’s credibility. It becomes a breach of trust between writer and reader, and that is something that you don’t want to happen.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fire Prevention Week

Every year, fire departments across the country observe Fire Prevention Week, which was created to draw attention to fire safety issues. This year, Fire Prevention Week is observed October 5-11, and the theme is “Working Smoke Alarms Save Lives – Test Yours Monthly.” Here’s a little history of Fire Prevention Week.

In 1911, on the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire (which destroyed more than 17,000 buildings, killed more than 250 people, and left 100,000 more without homes), the Fire Marshals Association of North America decided to commemorate the fire by promoting fire prevention. President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation in 1920, and in 1925 the first National Fire Prevention Week was observed. The National Fire Prevention Association now sponsors Fire Prevention Week.

Fire Prevention Week begins on the Sunday of the week in which October 9 falls. (The Great Chicago Fire started on October 8, 1871, but did the most damage on October 9.) Each annual observance is underscored by fire safety themes such as “Don’t Give Fire a Place to Start,” “Fire Won’t Wait – Plan Your Escape,” or “Smoke Alarms: A Sound You Can Live With.” During World War II, themes like ”Fires Fight for the Axis!” and “We Burned the Enemy – Now Save Yourself from Fire” tied fire prevention to the war effort and subsequent victory.

According to NFPA and the National Archives and Records Administration's Library Information Center, Fire Prevention Week is the longest running public health and safety observance on record.

For more information on fire safety and National Fire Prevention Week, go to

(Reproduced from NFPA's Fire Prevention Week Website, Copyright 2014 NFPA.)