IT ALL STARTS WITH A BENCH…LOST ROLL OF FILM AND SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. MAYBE LESS NOW.
I’ll blame Clint Eastwood’s new movie “Richard Jewell” for this trip back memory lane.
I think that there is all forms of PTSD and journalist are not immune from the results of the news they have spent a career covering.
As much as we hear “Fake News” it was; and I think still is an honorable profession.
The old-school thought is you just place thoughts in boxes; never to be opened or retrieved from the mental closet shelf.
As a small-town photographer you want to cover the big stories. You want to be a war correspondent. The truth is, if you spend enough time in a small town you will cover every disaster; shootings and accidents in the region.
There is nothing tragic to the human spirit, and body that you won’t see.
Intersections remind you of fatal accidents you’ve rolled on. Family trips to the mountains are roadways where you’ve covered families who lost their lives in fiery head-on’s. It may just take longer…but you see it all. You’ll develop a need for gallows humor.
I arrived in Atlanta around July 15th, several days before the opening ceremony as a photo editor for Gannett News Service and USA Today.
I was excited at the opportunity of working with some of the best photographers; word and photo editors in the industry.
My bosses were USAT Director of Photography Paul Whyte and Director of Visuals, Richard Curtis.
“ You’re NEVER to be without a camera! It does not matter if your here as a photographer or not.” Paul directed in a round-table meeting. He scared me in a good way.
The afternoon of July 27th I took a rare lunch break and went for a walk a block away or so from office.
We had a large area on the second floor that housed both television and print. A small television studio in front to interview athletes and dignitaries. In the rear a very large darkroom with WingLynch film processors and a digital area to download images from cards. Digital images were new technology in 1996 and we were using it for testing and to hit tight deadlines for the first time at a large event.
I’d been blessed meeting some sports heroes and many photography heroes; Howard Bingham was one of those photo heroes . I knew Howard from working near LA and trading emails. He came over to the photo department to say hello and tell me he had someone he wanted me to meet…Muhammad Ali who was there for a television interview.
Howard was Muhammad’s good friend and personal photographer. I still can’t stop beaming at the thought of shaking his hand, not to mention the status in the newsroom it elevated me to…at least in my own mind.
Centennial Olympic Park was really not busy in the afternoon. Plenty of room and a bit of time to find a place on a bench and enjoy the sun. It turned out later that it was not THE bench but close enough to have felt the shrapnel.
When you’re working these types of events you’re all in.
You have one focus.
I’m not proud that the first week went past and I had not called home once. This was before cell phones and I had no personal computer.
It’s an understatement that Anne was unhappy and I sold two Leica bodies and three lenses to have a computer soon after I returned home.
The hours are very long and the stakes are high on an event that the entire world is watching daily.
The Waffle House was about 20 minutes from downtown. Just across the street from the motel that Gannett had taken over to house their employees whom arrived from all over the country for the team coverage both print and television.
We filled the restaurant and it had already been a very long day. We were in various stages of ordering; being served and paying bills.
The terror of the bombing was just being broadcast live on the restaurant televisions. Everyone was moving toward the door.
“Just go, just go.” is all I remember yelling as the team was trying to get their checks. “Put those four tables on this.” my new hardly used American Express card….”God I hope the accountants approve this!” I remember thinking.
I almost closed the white van’s door on my leg I still remember a bit of a pinch and watching the speedometer reaching 90mph as we made our way to the park.
The van slammed to a stop as the streets were being closed in all directions.
It was a pile out! Everyone going in six different directions.
I found myself in a small cul–de–sac surround by the night’s mayhem.
No strobe; doing the best I can with street lights. Bloody faces; arms; many legs injured; ripped clothing. A young woman holding a shirt to a man’s head; nothing but red.
I don’t know that I took more than 10 frames on one roll. I had to get moving back to the office.
Running up the street I run into a wall of police marching in riot gear. With military precision they place barricades closing off the street as they pass.
I try to pass across the street and I’m pushed back.
I can see the building; I see people on the other side.
“Anne, Anne I start yelling and waving my arms.” Looks like I’m going to get another shove. “It’s my wife, I need to get to my wife.” The women look at me strangely now.
“ Go now and leave!” the officer yells as he allows me to cross towards the small group of people near the office building.
I just enter the parking level at ground level. It’s empty just one other photographer looking around like he lost something near the stairs. Just then the aluminum and chain security gates come crashing down.
In broken english he says the doors are locked and there is no access to the elevators. He was looking for a way out to get to the front door.
It’s one of those moments when the light comes on for two people at the same time and we started to run towards the freight elevator….cartoon characters in motion.
I still remember the eyes of one of the cooks when we came out into the kitchen. I thought they were going to explode.
We ran through the dinning room which was empty and into the bar towards the main entrance where there were still a few folks holding down stools. They were told not to leave by security.
My new French friend headed one direction and I start running up the escalator that had been stopped.
As I turn the corner on the first floor looking towards the main entrance I see my editors and some photographers pressed against the locked door. As I’m running up 3-4 security guards are running down yelling for me to stop in slow motion.
Another flight and into the almost empty office. Two reporters still woking were trapped while working on stories and it seemed like every phone in the office was ringing.
Heading with my roll of film in hand towards the darkroom I powered up the processor. Between high school and newspapers I had processed tens of thousands of rolls. I was shaking so hard I found it hard to load the film on the reels and fit them into the plastic tube.
There is pounding on the darkroom door. “The desk needs to talk to you NOW!” said the reporter.
I jammed the roll in, checked the dam in the trough; and flip the toggle for power.
“Gary we understand your the only one in the department. How can we help.?”
“Gary slow down, just get us something as soon as you can.” I just remember the very calming words from the main desk as I took a breath in this river of emotion.
Watching over the processor I’m startled by a young photographer running into the darkroom with several rolls. He was a loaner from a small paper, but noted as a top sports shooter.
So here is the awesome part….after pulling my roll and grabbing his rolls and making a fast edit on mine. I see I had only one image worth scanning.
I’m doing this while starting his film and closing the cover and tossing mine in the dryer. That roll was never to be seen again.
Making a quick edit on his rolls I moved the first image to USA Today.
I’m told I beat AP by five minutes but all I remember is scanning damp film.
The office lights were blinding and there was a thunderous wave of people in the office now.
At some point 22 hours had passed since I had last slept.
“Take a shower; get some sleep; whatever you need. JUST DON’T USE MY TOOTHBRUSH!” Richard Curtis yelled with a smile while tossing me his room key.