I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on many things. Certainly not in regard to the history of Toledo fires.
But Saturday night at 10 you can watch yours truly on the popular Travel Channel docu-series The Dead Files, providing detailed information on a horrifying 1898 inferno in East Toledo that claimed approximately 15 lives, including several children, to the show’s costar Steve Di Schiavi.
The series, seen locally on Channels 48 and 656 on Buckeye Cablesystem, is an hour-long investigation of supposedly haunted homes and businesses by Di Schiavi, a retired New York homicide detective, and Amy Allan, a Denver psychic who says she sees and communicates with dead people. The duo conduct their fact-finding and location walkthroughs separately — the show goes to great lengths to say they never communicate during an investigation (though on rare occasions they do) — and later share their discoveries with the concerned residents and owners, as well as each other.
Unlike other paranormal shows on cable television, there’s no ghost hunting or busting; the trademark of The Dead Files’ no-frills premise is Allan’s big reveal to the owners near the end of each episode: Is it safe for them to stay “or time to get out?” Thankfully, it’s mostly the former.
Now in its sixth season, the show has received thousands of submissions for help from those claiming to be terrified and troubled by pesky poltergeists. The Dead Files cast and crew showed up in Toledo in early February for the investigation into the 1898 incident and its subsequent impact on one East Toledo family living in a home they say is haunted, perhaps by the ghosts of victims of the fire. And that’s how I join the story ...
The Dead Files reached out to The Blade in January to see if a reporter would be willing to appear on the Toledo episode as the expert.
While Di Schiavi does the bulk of the investigations on his own, footage of him scouring old library books and dusty courthouse records to glean local history doesn’t make for riveting television; however, having an expert relay that information to a nodding and occasionally surprised Di Schiavi does.
The show was investigating a grain elevator fire on the evening of Sept. 21, 1898, at the Union Railroad company, on the corner of Miami Street and the present-day Conrail tracks, at the edge of the Maumee River. The blaze occurred about a half-mile from the
East Toledo home, which, incidentally, wasn’t built until decades later.
I received an email from a Dead Files producer with newspaper accounts and “talking points” about what Di Schiavi, who’s the paranormal skeptic and therefore “everyman” of the show, wanted to discuss on camera:
● The blast blew the walls out of the grain elevator.
● Everything in a 200-foot radius caught fire, causing chaos.
● The fire chief had warned the superintendent earlier that day about the dust hazard in the building, which caused the fire.
Even more telling, though, were the grisly headlines of the newspaper clips:
“Child blown to atoms.” “Eight men cremated in a Disastrous Toledo fire.” “Burned to a Crisp.”
I was to meet Di Schiavi and The Dead Files’ crew on a cold, late-afternoon Tuesday at Forrester’s on the River, a location selected for its scenic backdrop of the Maumee and downtown Toledo. But the iced-over river, inches of frozen snow, and drab-gray sky over equally drab buildings, while appropriate for the show’s dark theme and mood, didn’t sell the beauty of the city.
“We were there for seven days. I wish I could have spent more time there,” Di Schiavi said months later in a phone interview. “… I would love to go back, but in the summer, though. Not in the winter.”
When I arrived the crew was having lunch, and I sat near a fireplace going over the talking points and key facts in my head until they were ready to shoot.
Di Schiavi, an imposing barrel of a guy with dark hair and a thick New York accent, is friendly with the crew and good with the camera. He was dressed in a sharp black suit and striped tie — polished and perfect for TV — while I chose a less-physique-friendly maroon turtleneck and black pants. I look like the “after” picture from a yearlong binge at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
For the shoot, we sat at a cocktail table in front of a large window. The episode’s director explained that Di Schiavi and I would first talk about the blaze and his investigation as you would in any natural conversation. After that, we would delve into specifics of the fire and its aftermath.
Di Schiavi started with a general question: “So, Kirk, I understand you’re an expert on this grain elevator fire. Can you tell me more about it?”
“Sure, Steve,” I replied. This was followed by a long-winded and rambling description of what happened, punctuated by a cheesy ad-lib about the supposedly haunted East Toledo home — “… if it was me, I wouldn’t live there” — that I doubt survived the editing process. At least I tried, right?
After our talk, the director came over to tell me I needed to include the basic who, what, when, where, and how that any expert on this fire would know.
Funny thing, however, about being an “expert” in front of TV cameras and a production crew: You tend to blow it. A lot. I struggled to provide the information pertinent to the show and its viewers.
After several more takes I was able to say just enough of what the director needed that he mercifully ended my network TV debut. Or perhaps he was ready to cut his losses and move on to the next day’s final shoot with the homeowners and the big reveal.
Throughout the ordeal, Di Schiavi was gracious and relaxed. He also assured me more than once that I was in no way the worst expert in the history of the show, as I suggested.
“Nah, not at all. It’s not easy,” he told me later in our phone interview. “It’s hard to talk about stuff you may not know about, obviously. You also want to get it out the way you normally tell a story, but the producers need it to come out the way they need it. That’s where it can be a little annoying. The audience doesn’t need all the hits and runs, they just kind of need the meat of it. It’s very difficult …
“Matter of fact, the interview you and I did played into a lot of what Amy saw. So that was pretty interesting.”
I hope so, but I won’t know for sure until Saturday’s premiere of Demon War — Toledo, OH.
Until then, I’m left wondering if my Dead Files debut won’t come back to haunt me.
Contact Kirk Baird at: email@example.com or 419-724-6734.