Saturday, September 17, 2005

Inside Ophelia: Day One

I cant really explain why I like chasing hurricanes, as it is a thoroughly miserable endeavour. But whenever one of these churning monsters takes aim at the Carolina coast, I jones to be there when it slams ashore. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if I fixed copiers for a living, but after fifteen years of habitual storm coverage, I’ve developed quite the nasty hurricane habit. Like a junkie who knows he ain‘t living right, I could barely look at myself in the rearview mirror of my news unit Tuesday as I made one more mad dash into dirty weather. Bright sun in the Triad disappeared by Raleigh. By the time I reached the edge of Wilmington, a long line of evacuating traffic choked the oncoming lanes while angry raindrops turned my windshield into an abstract painting. It was then I realized just what I’d volunteered for again and I spent the last few miles to Carolina Beach squirming in my seat with adrenaline and regret.

I blew into town around the same time Ophelia’s outermost rain-bands did. Snaking through the flashing yellow traffic signals, I scanned the storefronts for makeshift plywood and spray painted defiance. I found only the former, a sunglass shop with all her windows sheathed in expertly erected wooden planks. Swooping into a parking spot off the main drag, I threw the Explorer in PAR K, leaned on the door handle and tumbled into the drink.

Outside, shimmering curtains of rain showers undulated across the deserted intersection. I kept my head down, but still took on quite a bit of water in the two seconds it too me to pop the tailgate. Crawling into the overstuffed cargo stash, I grumbled under my breath and fumbled with Velcro straps. Only when my Sony was encased in tailored blue canvas did I venture back out, knowing all the electronic bravado I brought would all be for naught if water got inside my camera. As I poked my head out of the back of the truck, two shirtless surfers pedaled by in slow-motion, their tattooed necks twisting shaven heads toward the emerging newsman.

“Hey guys,” I shouted over the roar of the storm, “Ya got a minute?”

Bill and Ted were friendly enough types but had trouble putting more than three words together at a time. As they roped to express how stroked they were to ride out the storm, I searched for a way to blow them off quickly. Chewing my lip, I stared at the quickly dimming daylight behind Bill’s (or Ted’s) head. On my hip, an ancient cell phone rang.

“You got time to call this yacht guy?”, Wes asked from the cockpit of his own news cruiser. “We‘re about a half hour out.”

“Sure” I said, not knowing who the‘ yacht guy’ was. Six minutes later I stepped aboard the vessel in question; it sunk a bit under my weight, making it more of a boat than a yacht. Inching along the narrow walkway outside the cabin, I held my camera in a death grip and thought about a storm named Gordon. I was halfway around the starboard side when a older man in a lighthouse t-shirt and white beard slid open a door panel and beckoned me inside. Once belowdecks, I pinned a microphone on my host, a retired state trooper who’d spent the last ten years cruising the Caribbean. In a corner of his potted plant-filled cabin, his gray haired girlfriend giggled at his every on-screen retort. Less than ten minutes after boarding the boat, I gathered my tools and disembarked. I couldn’t help but giggle nervously as I gripped the railing of the bobbing boat. Nary a slip around the small harbor was empty, paint-peeled fishing vessels and gleaming pleasure crafts pitched and yawed along side each other, the sounds of rope rubbing on wood echoing underneath the slapping patter of the hard-falling rain.

‘The places I find myself’ I thought as I stepped off the boat and onto a floating pier of lashed-together boards. In the distance, I saw Unit Four parked by the condo entrance, its hazard lights still flashing in the downpour. Holding my head down to avoid a face full of rain water, I ran around across the Yacht Club’s yard with my camera lens pointed behind me. I was almost to the other side when I heard them.

“Woo-Hoo! TV Dude! Wanna Beer? C’mon on man, make us famous”

I looked up and squinted through the deluge. Three stories up a small group of young locals loitered and grinned outside the condo’s covered porch. Cigarette smoke hung over their heads, mingling with the smell of a nearby grill’s sizzling contents. Low voices and raucous laughter rang out from behind the screen, punctuating the sound of the wind howling through the breezeway. Climbing the condo‘s steps, I smiled and waved, grateful to have found a bonafide hurricane party to put on the ten o clock news. When I stepped onto their landing, the inebriated foursome clapped and cheered, welcoming me to their gathering like a guest of honor. As they all began talking at once, I pinned a lapel microphone on the soberest one’s shirt and peppered him with questions. Through fumes borne of an Old Milwaukee can, he spoke of how the boats berthed below would float up over their slips should the water level rise enough. I made a mental note to check back later on the area as drops of rainwater slid off my eyebrows and straight into my upturned viewfinder, distorting the drunk man‘s image. I was wiping off the water with a rain-soaked sleeve when my cell phone rang for the fifteenth time that day.

“Stewie, we’re at the Marriott. Chad needs your disc so he can log it. Didya get anything?” I could hear tinny audio playing at fast speed in the background, along with a considerable amount of trash talk.

“Yeah...good stuff too”, I said, fumbling through my run-bag for the feel of my small digital camera. Across the screened-in porch, the guy I‘d been interviewing convulsed with tipsy giggles as his friends fought to high-five him. I ran my fingers under the soaking wet station ball-cap and pressed the old phone to my ear. “Lemme say goodbye to my new best friends and I’ll be right there -”

(To Be Continued...)

Redemption in Thibadoux

With my own sudden jaunt to the coast this week, I’ve neglected updating you on the ‘Cajun Country Convoy’. The last time we checked in with these crusty volunteers, they were erecting a makeshift grocery store in Thidaboux, Louisiana for the mountain of merchandise donated by the good people of Pitt County, North Carolina. Since then they’ve hit the road, ferrying truckloads of supplies to the many Bayou towns nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina. Yesterday they rolled into Pointe Aux Chenes, a backwaters island isolated from most relief supplies. From his shotgun seat in the caravan, The Daily Reflector’s Paul Dunn files another splendid dispatch:

Crawling at a parade's pace, the convoy's six vehicles wound its way past Cajun camp homes raised 9-10 feet above bayou level. Some volunteers rode, others walked alongside. At each home, enthusiastic, tireless men and women rushed to front doors asking people what they still needed. Most asked for water, baby things, medical supplies and paper products. Nerf balls and plastic jewelry thrilled the kids, who raced out with their mothers to see what was going on.

"Thank you very, very, very much," residents repeated as they received goods.
Our Father's House of Fellowship and Restoration assistant pastor Leon Brunet III marveled at the relief effort.

Riddle retrieved a Nerf football from his truck, reared back and fired a wobbly spiral toward a boy standing by the open window of a parked car. The ball missed the boy, but nearly landed in the car's window. No matter. With quick reactions, the kid grabbed the bouncing toy and raced away toward his home.

At another stop, Gonzalez jumped out of the truck, ran up to an idling school bus and popped a couple of Nerf footballs into the open windows. The kids grinned. Gonzalez grinned back. The Greenville building contractor had been waiting for this day, he said. "Today, I felt great, and it was the reason we were down here: to help the people," Gonzalez said. "I'm tired, but I'm tickled to death that we were able to help them, here. This makes you realize how lucky we are, doesn't it?"

After visiting just about every home in the area that still needed supplies, the group decided to call it a day. The trailer they'd been pulling was considerably lighter than it had been two hours before.

A final stop at the church, a quick prayer, heartfelt thanks in both directions, and the relief workers headed back to Thibodaux, sweaty and exhausted, but happy.

"I wasn't sure we'd ever get back today," said Carney, who'd rode the entire distribution route on the back of the open-bed trailer. "This was a lot of work, but we did what we set out to do, and the appreciation from the people here was just wonderful. I'm grateful we were able to help them."

This morning, three of the four men will begin the long drive back home. Dick Carney, organizer of the relief effort and my once estranged father, will stay in the area for at least another week. I love Dunn’s description of the Old Goat riding on the open bed trailer, offering help and humor to those who really need it. Wish he’d answer his cell phone...

Friday, September 16, 2005

A Sure Sign of the Apocalypse


Okay, so it's just two dudes sitting on a news set. Still, as anyone who's watched local TV news East of Raleigh can tell you, this is a most incongruent duo. For years Allan Hoffman and Gary Dean anchored the evening news on opposite channels, their nightly images seperated by a hefty click of the remote control. I've been lucky enough to work with both these local legends; though they are starkly different men, they both taught me a thing or three about broadcasting. But to see them co-anchoring the same newscast sorta boggles the mind, like that goofy Star Trek movie where Captain Kirk kicked back with Captain Picard. But that's how it is in the incestuous world of local TV News. Old colleagues and ex-competitors never die, they just switch logos. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go prepare for the End Times.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Crew-Call at Camp Ophelia

Having spent the better part of the last 48 hours awake, wet and windblown, it’s awful nice to be back in the Viewfinder BLUES home office. But as I sit here with my feet up, listening to ‘Texas Flood’ and perusing digital images, I’m still a bit storm-struck. I suspect that’s due to sleep deprivation, as I’ve found lack of slumber kills creativity almost as quickly as power-inhaling live truck generator fumes (not that I‘d recommend either). Whatever the reason for my dearth of narratives, I sit here with great material, lots of pictures and not a clue as to where to start. After some thought (and a tumbler or two of highly restorative Maker‘s Mark), I’ve decided to break up my Hurricane Ophelia epic into a few separate posts. Look for diverging storylines and a semblance of clarity in the days ahead. For now, there’s some fellas I want you to meet:

Meet Chad Tucker. Sometimes known as the King of King, this intrepid young reporter was the face of our Ophelia coverage. While the Gods of TV News demand reporters bare themselves to the elements, they’re a bit more reticent when it comes to their fancy electronics. Thus, Chad was the wettest one of the crew - though I contend that once your skivvies are soaked, comparative moisture levels are pretty irrelevant .But Chad didn’t just have to eat sideways rain for hours on end; he had to make sense while doing so. Always the pro, Mr. Tucker did just that, filing rain-soaked coastal reports not only for our Piedmont viewers, but also for Atlanta, Orlando, Los Angeles and many points in between. Here he’s pictured going live on Fox News Channel, minutes after doing the very same for Wolf Blitzer on CNN. That may sound like strange bedfellows, but in the incestuous world of TV News, nothing’s too kinky. Yes, Chad’s drenched visage ricocheted all over outer space before bouncing back to this troubled orb in the most unlikely of spots. But not without some help…

It may look like a pimped-out moving van, but this vintage satellite truck is just as much a character in our story as any of her smelly occupants. Lovingly referred to as the ’Santa Maria’ by her Captain, this rolling TV station is a damn welcome sight when it‘s raining up your nose. Just yesterday, I huddled in its less than vast interior, chopping tape (disc), eating Pop Tarts and talking a good deal of smack while the old girl rocked like a sailboat out to sea. Good times! Equal parts control booth, storm shelter and locker room, our beloved mobile headquarters has traversed the state (and the country) in the name of news a time or nine. I once heard a competitor sneeringly refer to it as ’The Death Star’ for its ominous black paint job, I think of it more as the ‘Millennium Falcon - a battered old vessel still capable of impressive jaunts into hyperspace, even if you do have to occasionally get out and push. If this kind of dated ‘Star Wars’ reference induces your eyes to roll, go get your glasses, as in a couple of paragraphs, we’re going to meet her Han Solo…

But first let me introduce you to one Wesley Barrett. Originally from Roanoke Rapids, N.C., Wesley is everything I’m not: highly-organized, laser-focused, nattily-attired. Hell, the guy dresses like a pro golfer, for cryin’ out loud! That’s no slam, as I’m almost certain it beats the loser-photog cabana loungewear I so favor. When not out bedecking his fellow lensmen, you’ll find him feeding his lifelong obsession with the N.C. State Athletics Department. Here though, he’s hard at work manning the balcony cam as he expresses frustration at the strange voices in his head. No he’s not schizo; he’s simply listening to the producers back at the shop - a great group of folk who would do well to get outside the station once in a blue moon. Exasperation aside, Mr. Barrett is a damn fine photog - a term of respect I don’t bandy about lightly, though it should be noted that my opinion and four dollars will still only get you one cup of coffee at Starbuck’s.

Speaking of coffee, you’ll find none of my beloved blog-juice inside the old Sat Truck. What you WILL discover are hidden caches of snack foods, coolers of bottled water and an illicit supply of assorted tobacco products. Somewhere among all this contraband you’re sure to stumble across one intently-distracted Truck Op, in this case the battle-proven yet baby-faced Joe McCloskey. A solid shooter himself, lately Joe-Joe has taken it upon himself to learn the Ways of the Satellite - a mysterious discipline rewarded only with a steady succession of sudden road-trips and some seriously righteous overtime. That the young newlywed would embrace this monumental task in the first place brings me great joy - for there’s nothing more valued than a cool cat who can tune in the bird. That’s some kind of lame vernacular for a most affable chap who can fathom satellite coordinates under pressure. Joe is that and more - and I’m not just saying that because his saucy spitfire of a wife would bend me into a pretzel if I badmouthed her man. Really.

Last but not least, it is my pleasure to present you with a local legend among sat truck clusters. I give you Danny Spillane. At first glance you may think the guy washing the Santa Maria’s windshield is a mere truck driver. Not true. Highly experienced yet under-appreciated, this veteran of a thousand media circuses cut his teeth shooting every kind of news there is before joining the Sat Side many moons ago. Since then he’s logged a staggering amount of miles in a variety of dish-bearing vehicles. Think of a major news story in North Carolina and the surrounding states over the past ten years or so, and chances are Danny was not only there, but he probably held the day together with his calm yet volatile leadership style. He’s saved my bacon a number of times, from fixing my attempts at fancy lighting to loaning me pair of dry socks once a storm named Bonnie drenched every pair I brought. Simply put, if Danny ain’t at the helm, I don’t wanna go.

So there you go - four friends, who along with your trusty neighborhood lenslinger, drove into the very teeth of a category one hurricane, all while telling tall-tales of the last big storm that got away. As for this most recent misadventure, there were enough snack crackers, peril and mayhem to fill quite a few posting son this humble bog. Perhaps tomorrow, I’ll have a better idea of where to begin. For now though, I gotta get some sleep.

Hard to Blog...

Wow! It's awful hard to blog when the entire island loses power! Nonetheless I have images and stories galore. As soon as I make it back to High Pockets this evening, I'll more than share. Stay Tuned...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Dirty Weather

The trip was long,

the weather dirty -

which meant SOME people were ready to party!

More tomorrow...

Reach for the Beach

Ophelia is still just a tropical storm spinning off the Carolinas' coast, but the suits here at the shop feel it warrants up-close coverage anyway. Ater a hard-target search of their top-shelf talent, they've come up empty and decided to send me. Thus, I'm hurtling toward the shore even as you read this, with plans to blog about it along the way, (provided I get a wee bit of down-time and a little wi-fi). Stay Tuned...

Interview With a Cowboy

His name is Wesley Hopkins, but I’ll always think of him as the Marlboro Man. Not because he smoked (he didn’t), but because of the careworn creases in his cheek, the no-nonsense cowboy hat and gravely, matter-of-fact demeanor. It took me the better part of an hour to reach the sprawling acres of Southwest Randolph County he called home, but within seconds of shaking Mr. Hopkins leathery hand, I knew it was worth the trip. Before I could even crawl out of my news unit, the veteran rancher began pointing out facets of his compound previously unnoticed. The split rail fence in the distance, the thatch of junipers over there, the stone inlay of a winding walking path - all carefully constructed by the 65 year old grandfather using his grade school education and his complete mastery of the rolling, wooded land. As the old chap showed me a small but beautiful chapel he built from the parts of a storm-damaged church, I smiled and nodded - thinking how it took me all weekend to organize my garage.

But I hadn’t traveled so out of my way to compare job-jars; I was there on business. Mr. Hopkins knew it too and agreed to ride with me to the pasture where the dreadful thing happened. A half mile from his modest house, this land-rich patriarch pointed me to a narrow, rutted path. He made grandfatherly small talk as I steered the Ford Explorer around the deep impressions in the gravel. Right around the middle of nowhere, Mr. Hopkins motioned for me to stop, hopped out rather spry-like for a man of his vintage, and unfastened a drooping metal rope from a post the size of a flag pole. Before I could tell him my citified SUV was only two -wheel drive, the grizzled landsman pointed to a ridge across a grassy field. Glancing down at the fuel gage needle as slipped below the bright shining ‘E”, I picked a path through the tire-high grass of the sloping terrain and hoped I had enough juice to get back to the nearest gas station - wherever the hell that might be.

From the top of the grassy ridge I could make out the silhouettes of a couple dozen black cows against the meadow. They took in my presence with their usual languor, but the sight of the man in the cowboy hat caused their heads to bob and their moos to thicken. As the herd began sauntering over in hopes of something to eat, Hopkins pointed to a spot of land near an electric fence.

“We found him right here...”

With little to no emotion, the old farmer told me of hearing tires screech just after dusk on Saturday, of checking on his 250 head of cattle, of finding a black angus bull shot through the heart with a bow and arrow. “I ‘spect it was hunters. They problem hunted all day and just wanted to kill something.” The bull in question was long gone, buried by Hopkins and his Bobcat the day before. Sheriff deputies had recovered the arrow and too it away to dust for prints. All I was left to shoot were the remaining cows, a beautiful rolling pasture and a taciturn landsman. While I framed up shots and hit the ‘Record’ button, Hopkins pointed out more features of the land. Every stump, rock and patch of trees had a back story - a hard-earned tale of sweat, labor and innovation. Where as I looked around and saw an inert meadow, Hopkins saw the breathing living components of a lifetime of labor. That impressed me and I told him so. He laughed as I remarked how all his efforts put a younger man like me to shame. Then he really looked at me for the first time, taking in my battered tripod, tropical shirt, my logo’d news unit idling in the background.

“Man, ride around, take pictures all ain’t got NOTHIN’ to do…”

So true.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Thibodaux and Beyond

With its truck tires riding low under the weight of thousands of pounds of relief supplies, Greenville's "Cajun Country Convoy" rolled into this southwestern Louisiana town Saturday afternoon.

And so begins the first of two articles Daily Reflector reporter Paul Dunn has submitted from Thibodaux, Louisiana. Having hitched a ride with the group of grizzled Greenville men bent on assisting Katrina victims, Dunn is now documenting their progress as they unload the massive generosity of Pitt County residents.

After that, they will probably help distribute the mountains of food, clothing, paper products, tools, gasoline and other supplies that are growing daily in a Thibodaux warehouse. The Louisiana towns of Houma and Grand Isle, both on the Gulf Coast, have been particularly hard hit and may be the men's focus in the coming days.

"I don't really care what we do here as long as I know it's for a good cause," Dick Carney said. "I'm relieved to know a system has been put in place and that things are being taken care of."

When I spoke with him last night, Carney (my old man and the reason I’m following all this so closely) sounded positively exhausted.

“We’s whooped - but I think we’re doin’ some good.”

For two days now Carney and the rest have sorted and organized supplies, trying to brig some semblance of order to a warehouse designated as a staging area for donated goods. Thibodaux itself dodged much of Katrina’s fury, but victims from nearby towns and parishes have poured into the small town.

“The damage around here is minor, but you ain’t gotta go to far to see total wipeout.”

Two of Carney’s cohorts ventured into the community of Grand Isle, an area that bore the brunt of the class 4 hurricane. Residents on the small island are still without many necessities. Carney says the Red Cross hasn’t done much there yet, the National Guard just now has arrived and FEMA hasn’t even been heard from. That leaves the local citizens of Thibodaux and our hearty band of volunteers to siphon supplies to the storm victims, as well as the relief effort’s first responders. To that end, Carney and crew have purchased shelving for the supply warehouse in hopes it will help them organize the several tons of supplies that are piling up. It’s not very glamorous work, but these men didn’t make the 21 hour trip for just the photo ops. They came to help - if that means stocking shelves for eighteen hours - so be it. Monday morning, they’ll be back at it - but not before a night of rest.

“We’re gonna get a bite to eat and then get in the crib. We’s whooped.”

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Lost (VoSot) Patrol

Between the half dozen reporter-voiced ’packages’ in your average newscast is a plethora of what we in the biz know as Vo-Sots. Allow me to elaborate. VO stands for Video, in this case 40 seconds or so of highly edited footage designed to run ‘under’ an anchor’s off-camera voice. This is followed by a Sot, or Sound On Tape, better known as a sound-bite. You know, those talking heads you see being interviewed on the evening news; the parade of grimacing faces that appear on the magic box in the corner of your living room right around dinnertime. TV News, it‘s called. Perhaps you’ve heard about it.

If not, congratulate yourself. Otherwise, stop pretending like you don’t know what a VoSot is, because it’s definitely gonna be on the test. Not just the structural breakdown of said line-up item, but the actual procurement of said species, for this is where the real learning begins. I have discovered more cosmic truths about the planet on the seemingly endless itinerary of this pointless pursuit than from any college syllabus. Then again, I never got very far past the syllabus, choosing instead to frequent the parking lot the for the very finest in whatever illicit bent was currently in season. It wasn’t long before I traded a half-hearted stab at academia form a job selling cars, a career I was so miserable at that I quickly abandoned it for the quixotic occupation of TV news-gatherer. That, my friend, is desperate.

Still, I took to the oddball crew of electronic town-criers like the aimless drifter I was. After I proved my mastery of the mid-seventies technology rusting in the studio, I shuffled through a few other in-house gigs, but always with my eye on the open road. Production vans were my first modes of transportation, but they only took to me to the used car lots and rich lady dress shops of the cheesy local commercial circuit. What I really yearned to pilot was a flashy news unit, lacquered to the gills with updated logos and bristling with the crackle of multiple scanner traffic. I’d watch the painted Blazers, low-rider station-wagons and newfangled SUV’s rumble out of the lot ever morning as I polished light bulbs in the back of my faded white Ford Aerostar. Oh to be a cowboy, I thought - dodging deadlines and tracking down news on the open road.

It all seemed very romantic back then, but from where I now sit - in the well-worn ass-groove of my umpteenth news unit, it feels quite pedestrian. Especially when I spend my days on VoSot Patrol - that time-honored tradition of assigning a lone photog several small news stories to gather throughout the day. Ribbon-Cuttings, Mug Shots, Dog-Shows and Drive-by’s - the flotsam and jetsam of daily drivel that warrants mention but not analysis (according to the twenty-something news producer that is, very often a nebbish type who’s been out of Momma’s kitchen three times now, thank you very much). No, after doubling back from town to town, I’ve begun chasing the trivial and the traumatic at about the same speed. Sure, I‘ll still goose the engine for breaking news, but don’t expect me to risk life and limb for the County Commissioner meeting. They’ll still be acting like third graders when I get there, don’t you worry.

So while I stare at the dust motes skittering across my office‘s dashboard, excuse me if I don’t crane my neck too hard at that fire truck that just sped through the intersection. Until I see a giant ape, burning orphanage or flying police car come across my windshield, I’m not about to get off schedule. After all, I got a group of school kids, a hopped-up principal and a cage full of ghetto-birds waiting on yours truly. It’s gonna take more than a toxic smoke plume twisting up from the horizon to keep me from my appointed rounds! Somewhere, back in the newsroom, there’s a metrosexual cracking open his third Diet Coke of the day and watching Judge Judy, who’s counting on me to fill 120 unrelated seconds of his show. One tap of my cell phone’s speed-dial feature and warm soda shoots out his nose and all over today‘s plaintiff. Don't make me do it!

Let the rookie chase the Bin Laden sighting on aisle five, I’M on VoSot Patrol…

Remembering 9/11

I was wrapping up an interview with a pair of visiting Russian cardiologists Tuesday morning when a pale-looking PR guy motioned me out of the conference room.

"You may want to reconsider waiting. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center...."

The tone of his voice told me he was serious, and the implications of such an impossibility raced through my mind as I gathered up my gear. Minutes later I was behind the wheel of my marked news unit. As I weaved an angry thread through the maze of morning traffic, frightened voices describing unimaginable scenes poured from the Explorer's speakers. Leaning forward, I punched the accelerator and tried not to look at the speedometer. Suddenly the pager on my belt started humming and vibrating - an hourly occurrence that now sent chills down my spine. Not bothering to even look at it, I took a hard right and pulled into the TV station parking lot.

The smokers on the loading ramp were uncharacteristically quiet. A friend of mine from sales seemed to be crying as she fumbled for a cigarette. She made a point of looking away as I approached her. Before I could say anything the door burst open and a portly photog lumbered out, straining under the weight of his tripod and camera.

"Crazy-ass Bullshit", he muttered -- as he headed for the only remaining live truck in the parking lot.

Inside, the newsroom was an exercise in bedlam. Frantic staffers ran about in every direction - phones rang unanswered, tape machines reeled and screamed. Every one of the thirty or so TV monitors in the cavernous hall were on - all blaring impossible images of airplanes slamming into skyscrapers. In the feed room, two normally glazed-eyed young editors were yelling satellite coordinates with the fervor of sinking submariners. Just past them I could see anchor row was empty - the on-air talent having abandoned their desks for the studio down the hall.

"Where the hell are Hoyle and Donna?" shrieked a frazzled producer in
tie-dye as a nearby cluster of sharp-suited managers debated where to send the sat truck. I pushed past them all, feeling somehow impervious to the mad action all around me. Squeezing past another wide-eyed colleague fumbling with a handful of scripts, I ducked into the morning conference room.

It was empty, and that struck me as strange - though all my attention was drawn to the bank of televisions. Six 25 inch sets, set side by side flush in the wall above the giant dry-erase board. Below the screens small neat placards identified their permanent settings -- CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN FOX #1 and 2. Countless are the times I've drifted off during a morning meeting in that very room, scanning the row of monitors for something interesting as a co-worker pitched their story idea. But now as I collapsed into a chair and looked up, the usual parade of talk-show blather had been replaced by a surreal montage of mortally wounded skyscrapers.

From behind me a good friend's voice. "Did you SEE that shot?" Wick
plopped into a chair beside me and handed me a tape. Before I could answer - another voice, that of an assignment editor broke over the loudspeaker --

"Swensen, load up in five and meet Zander at the airport!" Wick snorted in contempt as we both took in the madness onscreen. Suddenly the room filled as the gaggle of suits stammered in, our stiletto-heeled news director leading the way. "Hell no we're not showing Queen Latifah, Layton says stick with network. Call Foster and Gina, get em on set and order pizza. Send whoever we got to the airport - Swensen why the hell are you still here?"

Looking over at my surly photog friend, I noticed for the first time just how punch-drunk he appeared. He opened his mouth but before he could utter a caustic reply, the sound of a woman's shriek filled the air. Heads snapped in direction of the sound and we all saw a colleague recoiling from the TV in front of her. Swinging back towards the bank of monitors above us we watched as a kaleidoscope of camera angles captured the incredible sight of the first great tower toppling. Frazzled voices trailed away as the rumbling descent of pancaking floors snuffed out thousands of souls. For once no human voices could be heard in the vast newsroom, with only the off-kilter ring of a dozen phones left to fill the void...