Hansen: The great Omaha manhole fireball photo mystery

This image shows what looks to be fire shooting from downtown Omaha manhole covers on Sunday night. It was posted to the photo sharing section of Reddit.com, then picked up by Gawker.com, and has been viewed more than 1.5 million times on those sites since Sunday night.


The mystery began in a bar, as any good mystery should.

The patrons and employees of the Boiler Room had all seen the photo — the one that appears to show multiple fireballs shooting from the manhole covers along Howard Street, the defining image of the Sunday manhole fire that plunged downtown Omaha into darkness.

It seemed like every Internet-addled Omahan had seen the photo, which spread like an uncontrollable online manhole fire starting that night.

Nearly 1.5 million people viewed it on Reddit. It had been tweeted and re-tweeted and re-re-tweeted, and everyone appeared to be having the same argument that I engaged in Monday night at the Boiler Room.

It's real, some people said. It's clearly a fake, and you are an idiot, other people said.

No one, not even the all-knowing bartender, knew where the photo had come from — they had all gotten it from a friend of a friend of a friend.

This teed up a fascinating question: If an image screams around the Internet but it is attached to no photographer and has no creation story or stamp of authenticity, is it even a photo at all?

But wait a minute, I thought as I finished my drink and paid my tab. I have a bachelor's degree in journalism from a slightly above-average public university. I'm clearly qualified for most everything.

Why don't I figure this out? Why don't I solve the lingering mystery of the Great Omaha Manhole Fire Photo of 2013?

The ensuing city-wide manhunt took me an entire morning and involved several maneuvers that can best be described as quasi-stalkerish.

It included a man named Kenneth who wore no pants, a lawyer named Gwen who works in my own office building and a lot of purposeful staring at a fuzzy, blown-up iPhone image as if it were a modern-day Zapruder film.

FROM THE NOTEBOOK

Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

I am here to announce that I have solved the mystery. Thanks to the wonders of technology and a bit of old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism, I have tracked down the graduate student who took that Internet-famous image.

The photo is real. And it is also fake — but fake in a real way.

Allow me to explain.

Anyone who knows downtown Omaha could see that the photo — if it were in fact a photo — had to be shot from one particular apartment building. The others are too short or don't have windows offering the correct angle down Howard Street. No, this photo could only come from one spot: The west side of the Kensington Tower at 16th Street.

I stared up at that building's west side and brilliantly narrowed the mystery further. (OK, my wife did this.)

Every floor of the Kensington Tower is the same, except the top floor, which has some ornate stonework below its windows.

The circular image in the extreme left-hand foreground of the photo — the image that many on the Internet said was the photographer's thumb — was in fact a piece of this stonework.

The photo had to be shot from the Kensington's top floor.

Which is why I found myself in the Kensington's lobby at 8 a.m. Tuesday, buzzing each of the top-floor occupants.

I buzzed the first name. No answer. The second name. No answer. Then the third. Nothing.

Just then, a kindly man carrying his groceries inside stopped and said, “You need in the building?”

Yes. Yes I do.

I took the elevator to the penthouse and knocked. A man named Kenneth cracked open his door and stared suspiciously at me through the slit.

I explained my purpose. He explained that he would open his door further but that he was wearing only his underwear.

Pantsless Kenneth still wanted to help. Yes, he had seen the photo. He was just telling his mother about it on the phone when I knocked, in fact. But no, he had not taken it — Ken doesn't have any windows that face west.

“I think it was my neighbor,” he said.

I knocked without answer at the next two apartments, stuck my business cards in the doorjamb and left.

Back at the office, I jumped onto my computer and dove into the online cesspool known as Reddit.

The person who originally posted the photo there — a man with the brilliant online handle of “djtacoman” — turned out to be an Omaha native living in Seattle. He did not take the photo. He got it from the Facebook page of a woman named Gwendolyn Olney. He has now received messages from the Daily Mail, Yahoo! News and MSN, seeking to post the photo.

“You are the first person actually trying to figure out if it's real,” he said.

He led me to Gwendolyn Olney, who turns out to be associate counsel for The World-Herald. This proves two things: Omaha is indeed a small town. And newspapers are forever in need of legal advice.

Gwen didn't take the photo. She got it from Rebecca, who didn't take the photo. She got it from Brandon, who didn't take the photo. They led me to Gwen's friend Andrea, who didn't take the photo, who led me to . . . well, she couldn't remember who she had gotten the photo from.

Dead end. Four solid hours of seemingly brilliant sleuthing up in smoke. Well, I was beat anyway, and now the clock crept toward noon. Maybe I'll have turkey for lunch, I thought. Maybe ham.

Just then, my phone rang.

The voice on the other end said her friend — mutual friends with Gwen and Andrea — had told her to call me.

“I took that photo,” said the voice on the other end.

I pumped my fist and silently pronounced myself the Bob Woodward of Reddit.

“You are Internet famous!” I said.

“What?” asked Stephanie Sands. “I am?”

A half-hour later, Stephanie and I sat together in a downtown Omaha coffee shop.

Stephanie Sands is a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She grew up in Lincoln, got her undergraduate degree from Creighton and hopes to be an industrial psychologist, which she describes as “the data analysis side of HR” when she finishes at UNO.

On Sunday, she heard the explosion from her penthouse apartment — the apartment right next to Pantsless Kenneth's.

She sprinted to the window, saw the flames, took out her iPhone, the one with the pink case, cranked open her window and clicked twice.

Then the smoke grew thick, people ran out of the nearby Flatiron building, the power blinked off and the fire trucks arrived.

Hours later, when Stephanie realized her power wasn't coming back on, she met up with friends at Hiro 88 — the only nearby restaurant that had electricity and was therefore packed with the residents of nearby apartment buildings.

She showed her photo to her friends. “Wow, text it to me!” they yelled.

More Omahans, strangers, began to come up to her and ask for her photo, too. “You should sell this photo!” one told her. Nah, Stephanie thought, but she did send it to a local TV station, which didn't respond.

After an hour of being the center of attention, the photo started to seem boring. Stephanie's group stopped talking about it and started talking about when the power would come back on.

Then she forgot all about it, too, pretty much. She forgot about it until yours truly called her and told her that a person Stephanie has never met had put it on Reddit, and by 3 p.m. Tuesday it had received nearly 1,494,455 hits.

Stephanie has heard of Reddit, but she has never been there. She never goes to Gawker, where nearly 50,000 people clicked on the same photo, under the understated headline, “Holy Crap: Incredible Photo Shows Pillars of Fire Bursting from Manholes in Downtown Omaha.”

Stephanie says she has no idea how to use Photoshop.

“I can see why people would think it's fake, though, like that video of that bird picking up a baby,” she said.

Stephanie realized the problem. She realized it right after she clicked two photos and then looked at the first one.

There was only one flame when she looked outside, Stephanie says. But when she snapped the photo, the glow from decorative streetlights reflecting off Howard Street's wet pavement made it seem as if there were a half-dozen flames, all perfectly in a row, like a scene from the Apocalypse or from a Batman movie.

The photo is real. It's the reflections captured by a camera phone that make it amazing.

Stephanie explains this, and she patiently shows me both images on her iPhone camera roll, and the subsequent texts, to prove her story. Then she stops. Since I'm quizzing her, she has a question for me.

“How did you find me, anyway?” she asks.

I'm glad you asked.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com, twitter.com/redcloud_scribe

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