On Aug. 23, 2020, Kristin Kaminski was enjoying a day off with her wife at home when she saw the video of Kenosha police officers shooting Jacob Blake seven times at point-blank range. The video went viral on social media, and the nation’s attention was focused on Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Kaminski felt a knot develop in her stomach after watching the video, knowing what this tragedy could bring to the city. Her wife was worried about what events would follow the shooting.
“Babe, you have no idea how bad this is going to get,” Kaminski recalled telling her. “We knew that things would start turning in our city.”
Kaminski has been a firefighter for 17 years and is a member of the Kenosha Professional Firefighters Local 414 union. She was called in on Aug. 24, around 3 p.m. local time, to man the reserve rigs in preparation for the civil unrest that was expected to follow the shooting. It was a hot and humid day, around 90 degrees. Kaminski said she and the rest of the firefighters at her department were watching the protests turn into riots on a Facebook Live video.
One of the other firefighters watching was Ricardo Lebron, the president of the Kenosha Professional Firefighters Local 414. As he saw the different fires on the livestreams, he and the department started making plans.
“We were actually watching a lot of events turn on Facebook Live, and we did not have clearance to respond to any fires until the scene was secured by KPD or the National Guard at the time,” said Kaminski. Watching the fires grow and not being able to stop them was an unsettling experience and went against every fiber of her being, she said.
Lebron explained the mindset of the firefighters going into the night. “You make a plan, just start chipping away one at a time, we’ll take care of this one, and then we’ll figure out the next fire,” he said. “And if they keep on coming in, we’re going to just keep on going until either we’re totally depleted or all the fires go out.”
The call came in around 10 p.m., and Kaminski and her crew rolled out to the Uptown area of Kenosha, where several buildings were on fire. As they left the station, Kaminski remembered, she was thinking that “there were so many different unknowns. We didn’t know if we’re just going to watch the whole city burn down because there wasn’t enough police on duty or National Guard — we had no idea what to expect.”
Kaminski was driving the fire engine, and as she turned the corner the scene unfolded in front of her: multiple large buildings on fire, many of them historic. Reports of people trapped in the burning buildings came in over the radio, but the crew was ordered to take a defensive approach and suppress the fire before attempting to go inside due to the extreme dangers present.
Multiple fire departments from cities surrounding Kenosha came to aid the local department. Kenosha firefighters and their newly arrived assistance went to work trying to suppress the fires. While Kaminski was working on one multi-building fire, Lebron was a few blocks away on a different large fire.
When they weren’t working on the fire side of things, Lebron said, they were running to 911 calls with their ambulances.
Kaminski’s crew had been rotated out for a break to recuperate after sustained firefighting efforts all night; it was during this break that Kaminski took a photo that has now gone viral and become an iconic representation of the firefighters’ efforts in Kenosha. Her fellow firefighters were utterly exhausted, both physically and mentally.
“It was how we were feeling, just spent — emotionally taxed, physically taxed,” Kaminski said. “We had our radios on, and we’re just listening to the rest of the city just fall apart with other fires going on, you know, shootings and just — it was crazy. It was absolutely chaotic.”
Lebron wasn’t present for the photo, but he knows exactly how it feels to switch out from firefighting efforts. When firefighters are rotated out, it’s so they can cool off and get water in order to be able to stay in the fight. Typically, Lebron said, firefighters can feel somewhat physically tired while doing their job, but the minute they are rotated out, the full effect comes down like a hammer.
“Finally when you take a seat is when it all sets in — the mental and physical exhaustion,” he said.
As the sun began to rise, the residents of Kenosha were coming out of their houses and looking over the damage from the events that had rocked the city throughout the night. Kaminski said the locals were devastated.
“They’re like, we shop here, you know, this is where we get everything,” she said, “and the area was destroyed. My heart broke for the community.”
When they first left the fire station, Kaminski and her crew had felt confident and ready to take on the fires throughout the city. They couldn’t truly imagine the destruction that was taking place that night until they were in the fray.
“We definitely felt defeated […] I mean, we lost blocks’ worth of stuff, and just that one fire I was on, it was very disheartening, and we’re not used to losing full structures like that and not used to being so vulnerable,” Kaminski said. “We’re not trained to just let things burn down, that’s not in our blood. We are considered to be a very aggressive fire department. We usually don’t lose too many structures.”
Several historic buildings were destroyed in the chaos that night, and the community was left with deep wounds. But Kaminski is confident the community will come together and rebuild better than ever.
“Everybody was happy that they got to go home safe [after their shift] and see their families at the end of the day,” Lebron said.