Sunday, September 10, 2006

Looking for Lost Boys (part 2)

Though at first I didn’t notice, the mood outside the Danbury Fire Department had subtly shifted. The throng of volunteers still milled about; but the deputies, good ole boys and grannies that made up the crowd were markedly quieter. Eyes darted back and forth from underneath pulled down hat rims, mud was picked off the soles of crusty hiking boots, Styrofoam plates bulging with food were passed out to all who would take them. But I barely took it in. Instead I bounded up the steps of the Satellite truck, opened the door to find Brent Campbell wrestling with an earpiece in the dimly lit cabin.. Behind him red digital numbers glowed the time: 11:30. A half hour before he was due on camera for a live(!) update.

Though I hadn’t seen Brent in months, we skipped any niceties and got to work. Playing back the footage I’d just shot, Brent scribbled a few notes into a skinny notebook while I plugged a hard wire microphone to the back of my camera. Minutes later I hunched over the eyepiece and watched the audio meters dance while Brent recited his lines into the microphone. By quarter to twelve I’d assembled the framework of our ninety second report on the laptop’s digital timeline. With a few memorized keystrokes, I began dropping video clips over the audio tracks’ jagged green read out as truck operator Joe McCloskey mumbled coordinates into his own cell phone. Beside him Brent combed his hair while silently mouthing his intro. Just another day at the Tragic Factory.

Once I finished editing the noon package, I left it in Joe’s hands and threw my weight behind the truck’s heavy door. Half stumbling down the steps, I managed to stay upright while holding my camera in a certified death grip. Once the ground was beneath me I lurched toward Unit Four and popped the tailgate. Grabbing the tripod and my runbag, I half-walked/half-ran to the front corner of the fire department’s yard, where two other TV cameraman loitered by their own set-ups.

Even as I rushed to plug in my camera and microphones I noticed the crowd of volunteers had swollen. All around me, locals in Carhartt overalls and well worn flannel paced about, chewing, smoking, and trading tobacco-stained whispers. If Brent noticed, he said nothing. Taking his position in front of my lens, he nodded as the producer in his earpiece went over his rundown. I turned on my own earpiece to listen in. As the anchor’s voice threw it to Brent and the director punched up our shot, I watched an old man motioning to others to turn down their walkie-talkies. Something about the way the old guy hurried from deputy to deputy told me the news was bad…


After the live shot Brent and I walked back to the Satellite truck to re-group with Joe. About that time Brent ‘s photographer partner Kenny Cravens pulled up in his own news unit. Kenny had been tried keeping up with a Sheriff’s deputy car when it left the command center earlier, but no he was back with little more than a feeling that something indeed up. Breaking out a rumpled county map, Kenny showed the rest of us where he thought the searchers were gathering and where a third crew of our own colleagues was located. As we talked, we couldn’t help but glance at the swarm of locals around the fire department; open bay doors. A few competitors’ camera glistened in the crowd, a sight which left the lot of us uneasy. Quickly, we decided Brent and Kenny would head back out to try and finds the supposed spot of interest, while Joe and I kept our ears close to the command center. As Brent and Kenny pulled away, we sauntered down the hill, trading the kind of good natured insults grown men like to dish out to each other. From our relaxed pace, we may as well have been strolling to a church picnic.

But that changed seconds later when a woman I’d been chatting up earlier walked by shaking her head. “They found them.” she croaked. “ Dead in the River.” Despite all the earlier clues, her proclamation surprised me. But her tone and body language convinced me and immediately I yanked my cell phone off my hip and punched Kenny’s number.

“Turn around, turn around,” I told him. A few feet away the other news crews crowded around a side door as firemen and deputies poured out. “Gangbang imminent…”

The following few minutes were barely more than a blur. Hearing the news for himself, Joe ran back to the satellite truck to re-establish a signal. I called the station to let them know what I was being told. That four year old J.W. and three year old Jacob White had indeed been located. A canoeist searching waters near the Dodgetown bridge had found the two small bodies a few yards from each other. As word spread through the crowd of rescuers outside the fire department I made a mad dash for my camera. I’d barely made it back to the side door before the head rescuer came out and addressed the media. Every camera present pressed in tight to record the exhausted man’s sober words. My back ached and shoulder throbbed as I held the shot, while reporters peppered the official for every last detail. When he was done, the lenses dispersed - each team in search of a would be rescuer to interrogate. Over my shoulder, I saw Brent go live from Kenny’s camera. As he explained to viewers what he’s just been told, I ran back to the truck to feed the sound-bites I’d just recorded - grim snippets that would find their way to my station’s website before they led the next three newscasts.

An hour later it was all but over. As the bad news echoed across the land, search and recovery teams paused to pay quiet respects. My own colleagues had recorded countless interviews after their live shot, then drive off to find just where the searchers found the boys. As for me, my shift was done. Sitting behind the wheel of trusty Unit Four, I watched a stream of glum townsfolk file past. Flipping through a book of CD’s, I searched for something to listen to during the hour long drive back home. Despite the horrific outcome of the four day hunt, I found myself emotionally removed from the whole thing. I was there to do a job, and now that it was done, I was leaving. Might as well dig on some tunes while I did, I thought as I thumbed through my collection. That’s when I saw her, a girl no more that ten, being led to the fire department by her red-eyed parents. The girl too was sobbing, her small chest heaving with jagged breaths. I thought about my own ten year old at home and instantly felt bad about not feeling worse.

I drove home in silence.


Colonel Corn's Camera said...

Very good writing Stew. Enjoyed every word. Especially the line about the "morning dip." The last sentence really drove home a point. I made pretty light reading out of my last scene and the station wouldn't post it.

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