THE BENCH AND LOST ROLL

memories

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 culdesac 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.?”

I gulped.

“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.

The Lost Roll:

Old trucks never die they're found just west of Mojave.

Old trucks never die they're found just west of Mojave.

“you know something baby?
when you walked into that room.
i could not believe my eyes.
ha ha ha looking so fine.
struttin across that floor.
and that little red skirt.
wooo ha ha”

Jack Mack And The Heart Attack – So Tuff

This was my first opportunity covering the Olympics with a very talented USAT and Gannett News Service team who came from around the country to Atlanta.

They were tired and hungry and spread out though the Waffle House, just across the street from our motel. It was close to midnight all were busy in conversation and opening their first beer while ordering.

I was offered the winter games in Lillehammer a couple of years prior and passed it to a talented colleague so I was excited to have a second chance.

I told myself that I would not miss a moment of this experience. I was so focused the first week that I forgot to call the girls. Anne was calm, for Anne, but there was no mistaking my lack of communication would not be repeated.

The Olympic Games were on television in each corner of the room when a “special alert” showing images of what looked like Beirut and not the Centennial Olympic Mall flashed on the screen. A bomb had gone off injuring over a hundred people and killing one. There was a few seconds of cold silence along with disbelief when the scramble for our bill and the door began.

In a moment of monetary weakness I heard myself yelling “Just go, grab equipment and go, head for the vans.” as I dug for my American Express card. “Just put those tables on the card.”

Lord did I realize that my card had to be paid at the end of the month and how will I explain this on my per diem?

The packed last van had room to squeeze me in and with an equal amount of money and threats; our driver was passing all others on the freeway.

The van was just slowing a block out when the doors swung open and everyone went flying to cover the story in all directions.

We just made it though most of the security but it was growing quickly and access was getting tight.

Stuff that you collect?

Stuff that you collect?

There were only two rules at the Photo meeting held before the games.

1. Don’t embarrass the company.

2. Photographers and Picture Editors, don’t let the Director of Photography ever see you without a camera..

I was holding a camera, but no strobe. I knew if I would have any success, I needed to stay with the light, and began walking towards the plaza.

You could smell the powder still in the air and see a light haze illuminated by the office lights.

I noticed a small group of people sitting on a curb in a small cul-de-sac.

As I got closer I could hear crying and saw a woman holding a young man with a napkin oozing blood from his forehead.

I asked if he was ok?

They were told to wait there for an ambulance.

Everyone just seemed to have an emotionless stare on their face and I backed off for a long shot using the street lamp for light.

I moved in closer but was shooting 2-4 seconds and knew I better head back to the office to be ready for photographers coming in with their film.

As I started for the office in the International Sports Plaza I worked my way to the back as police units were cutting off all movement.

They marched in a helmet and shield wall pushing everyone to the side and barricading all intersections.

I tried crossing the street towards the building and was pushed back by officers twice. I noticed a group of women in the crowd on the other side of the street and I started calling my wife’s name.

Both the officers and the women were looking around confused but I kept yelling “my wife, my wife, I need to get to her” pointing to the other side of the street. They relented and I made my run.

As soon as I was in the ground-level parking garage I felt a sense of relief…until I heard the metal and chain gates falling to the ground around me. The building was under lock down and every opening was now closed tight.

I made the elevator at the same time as an AFP photographer cursing in broken English only to find that the elevators, escalators and stairwells were also off.

Feeling defeated we walked around and spotted a third elevator half the size near the loading docks.

We pressed the button and jumped in finding the doors opening into the kitchen of one of the restaurants on the first floor, scaring the hell out of the cooks and serving staff.

Showing our ID they walked us through the bar and unlocked the front door. All eyes of the patrons never left us. It was if they were watching two terrorist given access to the main plaza.

Rounding the escalator I could see several of my colleagues banging on the front entrance trying to gain access to the building. They seemed to be a little relieved after seeing me run the flights of stairs on the escalator as security was running down yelling for us to stop.

At some point, I don’t remember my new French buddy splitting from me, but didn’t look back until I was in the darkroom tossing rollers into the Fuji film processor and firing it up.

Just as I hit the process switch a young GNS photographer was banging on the door with several rolls of film. I asked how he got in and he seemed dazed and out of breath. It was best just to get the film through the processor.

His images were strong and USAT was very anxious …and told me as such in constant communications. I lost track of time but it seemed like hours before the office started to fill,

Later in the day I heard that we beat the Associated Press by five minutes posting the first image from the bombing. Apparently at some point security had showed later in the afternoon looking for the guy that was running up the escalator breaking all their rules.

Not until much later did I have the opportunity to think about the fact that I had been sitting in the exact location where the bomb was left by Eric Rudolph hours earlier.

Both sad and ironic that the band playing that night was “Jack Mack and the Heart Attack” it was later learned that a video cameraman lost his life by heart attack running to cover the bombing…I never saw that roll of film again.