Ann, our evening co-anchor, and I were on our way back from dinner when my cell phone started to vibrate. It was the assignment desk calling. There had been a major accident on I-95 in Bridgeport. Details were sketchy. It was a tractor trailer, full of fuel oil, and there was a huge fireball. We didn’t know exactly what was going on – but it was big.
I handed the phone to Ann. As she talked, I sped through the city, toward the TV station five minutes away.
“Ann, I’m going to run this light,” I said at a lonely intersection about halfway there. And I did.
We returned to the newsroom, which had moved from its normal routine to a more frenetic pace. The chopper was flying in from its hangar in Chester. The DOT had removed access to the traffic cameras near the scene (I have no idea why they do this – but they always do). The assignment desk was buzzing, making and taking calls.
Before the cameras went away, Jeff Bailey (left), our webmaster and a former show producer, had scoured the DOT’s web based cameras and plucked a shot of flames in a nearby building. Those cameras too were soon removed. He said he was lucky, but it was instinct that told him to look.
There wasn’t much for me, the weatherman, to do. So, I stepped back and took in the scene.
When there is breaking news, a newsroom is a fascinating place. It’s not just getting the story, but getting the story to those who will tell it. Then there’s coordinating all the disparate elements. Will the art department whip up a map? Can we move a reporter off an earlier story and down to the scene. Does the copter have enough gas to stay aloft? If it has to refuel, what’s the best time to do it… and where?
Is this a fact? Do we know for sure? Can’t guess. Gotta know.
Our news director was there, as was our 6:00 PM producer. The newsroom coordinator who had been in the neighborhood, stopped by, and was pressed into service. It was astounding to watch the flow.
I-95 is the busiest road in the country. The section cutting through Bridgeport, recent scene of years of construction, would be out of service for an indefinite period of time.
The desk checked the hospitals. We had gotten information – as it turns out bad information – that lots people were being taken to area hospitals. You can’t let bad information get on the air.
Reports came in, and checked out, that diesel oil carried by the tractor trailer had washed into a storm drain and was now heading to Long Island Sound through a nearby creek.
We went on the air, cutting into coverage of figure skating. The phones lit up as angry skating fans vented. It doesn’t make any difference what you’re covering or what you’re pre-empting. There are always calls.
The helicopter arrived on scene and Ann let Dennis Protsko, our chopper reporter do his thing. Later, Keith would anchor a cut-in, and then at 10:00, both of them together.
Having been in the chopper many times, I can tell you the best view is the view from our camera – not with the naked eye. Dennis has the advantage of both reporting and controlling the camera. I had watched in a monitor as he approached the scene. The camera, on a mount between the copter’s skids, darted back and forth as he scanned the scene. As he told his story on-the-air, the video followed along.
Other reporters, cameramen and live trucks arrived on the scene and we started to fill in details. We broke in twice during skating, did an extended 10:00 PM news and then our normal 11:00.
It was exciting to watch everything come together. TV news is normally heavily scripted and produced. This was seat of the pants – and it was great.
The directors fought off our control room automation system. They would need to make instant decisions – not preset ones. That’s not what the system does best – but no one would ever know tonight.
I don’t wish this kind of tragedy on anyone. But, when something big happens, I want to see the people I work with step up to the plate – and they did.
I’ll see the ratings tomorrow, but they’re not the indicator of what we did. We couldn’t go door-to-door telling people to turn us on. What we had to do on a night like this was convince those who were watching that we were masterful (and we were). Then, next time it hits the fan, maybe they’ll come back.
I’m really lucky to have been there and watched this. If you work in a team environment, this is what you’d want your team to do.
I can’t be accepted as an unbiased observer here. Of course I have a stake in how we do. But, I mean every word. I wouldn’t write it if it weren’t true.
Note: As great a job as we did, the best photo of the night goes to the Connecticut Post and photographer Christian Abraham. It is their photo, so I can’t post it, just link to it. This will win some prize, for sure.