After the Waldo Canyon fire exploded Tuesday night into a catastrophe that claimed two lives and destroyed 346 homes, a gloom descended on Colorado Springs.
And why not? The fire that roared out Queens Canyon and attacked the foothills neighborhood of Mountain Shadows was shocking.
With 30,000 folks evacuated from their homes and billowing smoke obscuring the mountains, the faces I saw around town were mostly grim.
So I was pleasantly surprised to hear cheers and laughter Friday.
They erupted at the sight of President Obama at Fire Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road.
I was standing on a bench along the curb, straining for a glimpse of Obama along with 300 or more passersby.
Obama was in town to survey the damage and comfort the victims.
The crowd grew as word of his imminent arrival spread.
The enthusiasm was tempered by the sight of smoke rising from Blodgett Peak in the background.
But most of the crowd was excited Obama was coming.
They talked about the rooftop snipers scanning the area around the fire station. They worried their camera batteries would die before he arrived. They speculated on his route and whether he’d shake hands.
When a couple drunks stumbled up and started trash talking about Obama, several in the crowd quickly confronted them.
“Show some respect,” demanded Jack Martinez, who waited, camera in hand, to see the president of the United States.
Martinez explained Obama’s visit wasn’t about politics or his re-election campaign. He believed Obama simply wanted to convey to victims the sympathies of the nation.
Obama also came to thank the hundreds of firefighters risking their lives to save Colorado. And he tried to assure the entire city that every resource available would be put into the fight against the wildfire.
Martinez was angry that a couple barflies wanted to use the tragedy to launch personal attacks against Obama.
“I’m glad he’s in town,” Martinez said as heads around him nodded agreement. “He should be here.”
Then the motorcade came screaming up from the west and Obama’s black SUV pulled into the station.
Folks along the curb wondered if aides could hear what the crowd was saying.
Were those explosive-sniffing dogs on patrol? Was that Obama or a look-alike they saw walking around?
Some wondered about the weapons strapped to the legs of the snipers.
Others speculated about the arsenal and elite soldiers they believed were inside a large black truck.
After about 40 minutes, the chatter stopped as the motorcade stirred. The press corps was hustled into vans. The doors of the black SUV with the presidential seal opened and Obama hopped inside.
The crowd around me roared. Cheered. Hollered words of support.
Some in the crowd said Obama waved as he sped off. They were thrilled.
I saw a soldier in camouflage on the curb snap to attention and salute as Obama drove past.
It was good to see the community smile again. No doubt, there will be more tears before this is over.
But I sensed the crowd was comforted to know we’re not alone. That our president cares. Our nation cares.