Saturday, July 28, 2007

Life And Death On The Evening News

The deadly collision of two news choppers over Phoenix during a car chase dusted off a dark memory from my producing stint at KRGV in Weslaco, Texas. I present it here not to exploit a tragedy, but to hopefully give you some insight on how newsrooms manage to get the news on the air in the midst of a newsroom disaster.

In 1995, I lost a friend and colleague, Roy Pena, after a train crashed into a station car being driven by his photographer, Joe Davila. It happened at a railroad crossing in Brownsville obscured by trees. You can't see an approaching train until it's nearly upon you, too late for evasive action.

From my journal of October 21, 1995:
It happened around 3pm today. I got a call from somebody saying they'd seen one of our news units hit by a train in Brownsville on 802. I couldn't believe it... it had to be a mistake. Maybe Roy and Joe had rolled up to the scene of an accident and the person just got confused.

But at the same time, Nydia [our newsroom intern] was on the phone with somebody saying the same thing. And he was a friend of Mr. D. Pretty soon, Julian answered another call on the same topic.

Now, I was worried. I called out over the two-way. "KHD-76, Base to Roy and Joe."

No answer.

"KHD-76, Base to Roy and Joe."

Still, nothing. I had Nydia run Joe's beeper. We also tried to get ahold of Eddie [another Brownsville photographer] to get him out there. He was soon on his way.

A few minutes later, I got a call from a Brownsville fire station and my fears were realized. They had sent out two trucks and the jaws of life out to the scene.
I phoned my news director and he was soon on the way to Brownsville. About 15 minutes later, Eddie phoned in.
His voice trembled like that of the reporter who told the world the Hindenburg was burning.

"He looks bad, man." He told me Roy had a couple of broken legs along with head and stomach injuries. "It was a f-----g train, man!"

He said it'd hit on Roy's side. Roy was in deep trouble.

Now I was shaking like crazy. Nydia and Julian [a tape editor] were both trying to calm me down.
The word spread quickly. People started coming in, including one of the anchors, the assistant news director, a tape editor, and another photographer. Getting ahold of Joe's family took a personal visit by another staffer, as the phone number we had for them had been disconnected.
Eddie called around 7:30 to tell me that they'd called a code blue while working on Roy... which meant his vital signs were slipping away. At about 8pm... in the middle of Nydia, Tony, Matt, Lorenzo and everybody else who was there... I got the call I knew was coming but didn't want to come. Roy was dead.
I managed to write Roy's obituary, which was delivered by our anchor with dignity and class, devoid of any grisly details.
I could hear Saul's voice tremble as he read it. "He was only 22."
I wonder sometimes how I went about my job that day. I figure it was the shock, the disbelief in all of it coupled with the professionalism that required me to get my work done for our viewers expecting a newscast, family tragedy or not. I also knew Roy would have wanted it that way.
What really breaks me up the most is that I never said anything to Roy that day. I'd talked with Joe about what they'd covered, but I decided to leave the two of them alone until they were ready with scripts... since we had no early show, I felt like they deserved a break from some of the producer nagging they're usually accustomed to. Roy had called earlier in the day and talked with Nydia because he was having problems with the computer. I'd told Nydia to tell him to try rebooting it but hadn't taken the call myself.
I also didn't want Roy to hear any frustration in my voice with our up-and-down computers in Brownsville over the phone. But I could've talked to him. I could have at least said hello before goodbye.

Nearly twelve years later, the shadow of Roy's death is still over me. After he passed away, I started making sure I told my parents I loved them before hanging up the phone.

No doubt the employees of KNXV and KTVK are showing their love, as are their competitors. I hope it will also ignite a serious discussion about safety when multiple news choppers are in the air. I am amazed this has not happened in Los Angeles, where car chase coverage is the norm. Pilots are constantly looking around them, keeping track of at least two or three other choppers as well as the action on the ground. As far as we know, all the Phoenix pilots followed procedures, but the crash still happened. This should be the time to put competitive pressures aside and work out a pool system for high-speed pursuits, perhaps a "first there" rule where the station that gets to the scene first covers the story and then provides the video to the others via microwave or tape.

I know the pool idea is not attractive to many news directors, or else stations would be doing it already. But TV news departments use pool video on many occasions, most notably during trials where only one camera is allowed in the court. The networks have pooled video for presidential coverage for years. Did we really need five TV helicopters to follow one car yesterday? Given the loss and grief Phoenix newsrooms are going through right now, it's high time somebody starts talking prevention.

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