It was February 1 and the sun had set on Miami’s most famous cemetery. The scores of mausoleums and etched gravestones of cement, granite and oolite were dark. The gate was locked and high fences towered above me on all sides. There was no way out.
But then, a smiling blond firefighter revved up an electric saw. Sparks danced in the night, and a grey and black padlock that had secured the gate clanged to the ground.
“You’re now free,” the blond whooped.
“I bet you thought you were going to have to sleep there,” said another firefighter.
Located at 1800 NE Second Ave., the Miami City Cemetery is the oldest graveyard in Miami Dade County. It is the final resting place for members of the city’s pioneer families such as Julia Tuttle, a city founder, and the Burdines, who built a department store chain. Perhaps the city’s most startling remnant of its segregationist past, the cemetery is divided into several sections: White people on the east, Blacks on the west and Jews in the middle.
My misadventure at the area’s most ghoulish 10 acres started when I received an email from one of my Florida International University professors informing me that our first journalism class would be held there. When the day arrived, my dad drove me from our family home in Little Havana to the cemetery, where I learned we would all be expected to write articles describe its history and the pioneers who were buried there.
It was the first time in my 23 years that I had been in a cemetery. I walked around, past scruffy grass as well as garbage including a Corona beer bottle and McDonald’s wrappers. Graves weren’t in straight lines — and big mausoleums were scattered among them. Soon I stumbled across Judge Lawson E. Thomas’s final resting place. “First Black judge in the South since Reconstruction,” it read. I snapped a photo.
After my dad picked me up and drove me home that day, I learned more about Thomas. He was born in 1898 and in 1937 became the first black lawyer to plead a case in Miami’s municipal court. He was part of a “wade-in” that led to the city’s first black beach on Virginia Key.
A few weeks later, on a Monday, I decided to return to the cemetery to take more photos for my article. I searched the cemetery on my iPhone and learned that it closed at 6:01 p.m. So after work, I drove over, arriving at 5:10 p.m.
With my camera in one hand and a list of graves in the other, I passed a lady walking her tiny brown-and-white dog. I searched 20 minutes for Lawson’s grave before pulling out the picture I had shot on the first day of class and spotting an antique wooden car in the background. Two minutes later, I had found the cart and the gravestone. A small pink flower was on top. I moved it a touch and took a photo.
Then I noticed his 123rd birthday was only three days away. “Hey, by the way, happy birthday,” I said aloud and headed back to the entrance. It was about 5:40. The sun was starting to set. The place seemed peaceful — not as spooky as you might expect.
As I got closer to the green gate at the North Miami Avenue entrance where I parked my Dodge, I realized it was closed and secured with a huge chain and a lock.
“This can’t be right,” I said. “It was supposed to close at 6:01.”
I ran to the NE Second Avenue gate as fast as I could — just to realize it was shut with a similar chain and lock.
This can’t be happening, I thought.
I had seen a small house with public bathrooms in the middle of the graveyard. Maybe there is a guard there, I thought. But when I ran back, I didn’t see anyone. I screamed “HELLOOOO?” There was no answer.
I called my father through WhatsApp video. He was waiting for me back home with dinner.
“Hey, dad,” I said. “I have bad news.”
“What happened?” he responded.
“I’m trapped in the cemetery.”
“What do you mean?” he said. “Oh my goodness, Kelly, what are you going to do?”
He was worried and wanted to help me, but he couldn’t because I had taken our only car to the cemetery.
“I have two options,” I said. “Either I try climbing the fence or call 911,”
“Show me the fence,” he said. I turned the phone toward it.
“There is no way you are climbing that,” he said.” You could get hurt.”
So I dialed 911 and explained the situation.
“What?” the woman said. For a few seconds, there was silence. Then she came back on the line and asked me to describe myself. “Blond, blue shirt, black pants.”
“Where are you standing?”
“Near the North Miami entrance,” I replied.
“A unit is on its way,” she said. “Wait in a place they can see you.”
A few minutes passed. I was somewhat frightened. I should note that I believe in ghosts.
Ten minutes later, a police officer arrived. I described the situation through the gate, and he called to see if another unit had the key to the lock.
When he hung up, I said: “Maybe I can jump the fence.”
“No. If something happens to you, I will be responsible,” he responded.
So we decided to look for missing bars in the fence. No luck.
Then the officer grabbed a bolt cutter from the back of his car and tried to cut the lock. It didn’t go well. He fell on his butt after the first attempt.
I wanted to laugh, but decided against it. It was 6:35 p.m. and getting dark.
He went back to his car, leaving me alone inside the cemetery. I posted several Instagram stories telling my friends that I was locked inside a cemetery and to pray for me.
Finally, the police officer called fire rescue. A big red firetruck, with lights and sirens blaring, arrived around 6:45 p.m. That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.
The blond firefighter and three others jumped off the truck and spoke with the cop. Then the blond ran back to the truck.
“I finally get to use this baby,” he said while taking an electric saw out of the truck.
His supervisor told him to get a face shield.
After five minutes, he had opened the gate.
I thanked him and all the others. “I’m really sorry,” I added.
A few minutes later I was home. My dad had saved dinner for me.