Photos of a family lost to a tragic fire after Christmas have been preserved by graduate fellows in the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation. Boxes of the salvaged photos will be hand delivered on March 13.

Salvaged photographs

Special delivery planned for photographs recovered from tragic house fire


8:44 a.m., March 10, 2015--They could have sent these photographs by airmail or some kind of ground transportation. They would have reached the Ohio home of Ricky and Traci Harris well enough.

But this is precious cargo, the kind that needs a "Handle With Care" label, the kind that cries out for special delivery, the kind you don't take chances with.

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From graduates, faculty

As it neared time for the processional to open the University of Delaware Commencement ceremonies, graduating students and faculty members shared their feelings about what the event means to them.

Doctoral hooding

It was a day of triumph, cheers and collective relief as more than 160 students from 21 nations participated in the University of Delaware's Doctoral Hooding Convocation held Friday morning on The Green.

That's how University of Delaware professor Debra Hess Norris and doctoral student Michael Emmons saw it, so they will travel to Washington Court House, Ohio, on Friday, March 13, to return a treasure trove of family memories to the Harris' home.

The photographs -- hundreds of them -- were just about the only items salvaged from a Dec. 26 house fire that claimed the lives of the Harris' three sons -- Kenyon, 14, Broderick, 11, and Braylon, 9 -- and Ricky Harris' mother, Terry, 60. 

The three boys had spent Christmas night with their grandmother, just two doors down from their own house, so she wouldn't be alone. Just after 4 a.m., the fire broke out and quickly engulfed the small ranch house.

Emmons, a high school friend of Ricky Harris, found the photographs in Harris' garage when he went to see his devastated friend the day after the fire. Someone had rescued them from the fire scene and spread them out on the garage floor -- wall-to-wall -- to dry. 

Many were charred around the edges, some were stuck together, warped -- all had been soaked with firehose quantities of water.

Emmons wasn't sure what to do or whether anything could be done, but he believed Norris would have a suggestion. She is the Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts and the chair of UD's Department of Art Conservation, an internationally recognized expert in photograph conservation with experience in disaster response. He contacted her immediately.

When Norris heard what had happened, she invited him to have the photographs shipped to Winterthur, where she was about to teach a three-week photograph conservation class to first-year graduate students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. They would evaluate the photographs and do what they could to clean, flatten, and stabilize them.

A box full of photographs arrived at Winterthur just before the first class on Jan. 5.

"When I first got the FedEx package I wanted to see what they had sent," Emmons said.

He opened the box and saw ashes and charred pieces of photographs inside, along with a large envelope packed with photographs.

He decided not to take the photographs out of the envelope, to prevent disturbing the fragile materials.

Norris said she and her students planned to take the photographs out and begin to sort through them. But when they opened the envelope, an acrid smell of smoke filled the room, enough to make some students' eyes water. Addressing that smell -- with zeolites -- became an important part of the project.

Students worked for hundreds of hours and Norris said everyone felt a connection with the Harris family, though they had never met. Being able to develop their skills while helping a family at such a time of loss made the work especially meaningful, many in the class said.

"It is so personal and emotional for the family, and our priority is to help them," Leah Bright, a native of Fairbanks, Alaska, said during a work session in January.

In addition to treating the photographs, students kept copious notes, recording the methods and materials used, their rationale for using various approaches, the ethical considerations they included in their decisions, what worked best, where they encountered challenges and what they recommend for others encountering similar situations.

As the work progressed, Ricky Harris said it was a source of comfort for him and his wife.

"That this great big place that could be doing so many other things is doing this for us, it helps," he said in January.

Aaron D. Hauer, chief of the Jefferson Township Fire Department, wrote to Norris to tell her what the work meant to him and his firefighters.

"This was a very tragic event for our community to say the least," he wrote. "It’s even harder when there is nothing you can do from the very start. We always do our very best to preserve important property that people have when dealing with a fire scene. Houses can be rebuilt but memories are hard to replace, especially when that is all you are left with.

"As a firefighter we seem to always deal with people in the worst hours of their lives. It doesn’t seem to go much past that after we leave the scene, and we go back to doing what we do. This is much different. We are still working through it along with the community and we’ll continue to until we can give the family some form of closure that I hope we can give. When I saw the news article I was compelled to reach out. I want to personally thank you for what you and your students are doing for this family.

"I’m sure you are getting lots of thank you’s from people that have heard the story, but from someone that was there, to me and my firefighters you will never know how much your selfless service means to us."

Emmons looks back at the past 10 weeks with amazement. He had no idea when he found the photographs in Harris' garage that anything could be done to save them. He didn't know Norris, an expert in the field of photograph conservation, was about to start such a class, had no idea she would be willing to incorporate the photographs into that class, and is amazed by what she and her students accomplished in just three weeks.

He remembers how important photographs of his own brother became to him after his death. And he is glad to be able to return these family photographs to his friend in person.

"Obviously it is not going to bring his mother back or his children," Emmons said. "There is no replicating having those people with you and giving them a hug. Maybe the next best thing is having artifacts. To have images of the family is pretty special."

Special handling required.

Article by Beth Miller

Video by Ashley Barnas

Photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of the project

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