When does a school bus wreck turn into a meet and greet? When the ambulance driver puts it in park. That was the (social) scene Friday morning, when scribes and lenslingers turned a patch of Highway 68 into a roadside symposium on spot news readiness. Lemme ‘splain. Sixteen minutes before putting boots on the ground, I was sifting through coffee filters in a state of bedhead undress. Answering a ringing phone quickly, I almost handed it my bride when the sound of distant scanner traffic seeped out of the handset, telling me my cup a Joe would have to wait.
It’s tough juggling hot java when you’re putting your news unit through its tightest maneuvers. No barrel rolls though. I can’t say I coasted on my to Oak Ridge, but I didn’t break the sound barriers I would have as a younger man. Instead I proceeded deliberately down old 150, eyeballing passing road signs like a fighter pilot scans mountain ranges. Two Guys named Chris cackled in the background as I threw the cockpit into a tight right. Up Harrell Road a bit another sharp bend loomed near and I took it, the morning producer’s words in my head, “Semi hit a school bus up on 68. Students transported.”
The bus was upright when I arrived, a classic ‘short bus’ parked alongside the ribbon of blacktop. It appeared unscratched. Ahead, an 18 wheeler idled in the center lane as a gangly teenager in an oversized fireman’s coat waved traffic past a spitting flare. I pulled over on the shoulder, fumbling for my cell phone and punched the speed-dial. As it rang, I watched a state trooper walk over and look at the semi’s tires. His body language - and that of the firefighters gossiping nearby - told me next to nothing was up long before I had it confirmed. The parent in me was greatly relieved. The newsgatherer was slightly annoyed.
When the newsroom scanners start spitting words like ‘school bus wreck’ and ‘students transported’, morning show producers lunge for the telephone. Game on. While someone like myself hurtles toward given coordinates, they overtake the earpiece of the on-set anchor, who soon start spouting phrases like ’a crew is on the way’. When I arrive and what I see determines if said event is a flashing item on the traffic graphic or continuing team coverage of ‘every parent’s worst nightmare. I might very well call in the kibosh, but until I do the suits will throw talent and technology at the fateful locale. In Friday’s case, it was but a bump: a braking semi couldn’t quite stop and tapped the back end of a shortened school bus. The kids on board were ‘special needs’ and taken to the hospital just to be safe. But the scanner omits those kid of details.
All of which explains the fleet of logo’d mobiles breaking over the horizon. Mine wasn’t the only newsroom assuming the worst; live trucks from two other stations pulled up before I’d even got my tripod fully extended. The drivers and I exchanged exasperated looks as the unscathed bus and the idling ambulance signaled the scene’s lack of severity. Furrowed brows loosened and eyes rolled as the journeyman responders realized their recent RPM’s were all for naught. Small talk broke out; men with beat-up tripods and women with perfect teeth chatted there on the grass - all urgency set aside as a perfectly round tow truck driver began rattling his chains. The sputtering parade of morning commuters slowed to a crawl as they passed…
What are they looking at?