On the Spot

October 8, 2009 

People at emergency scenes are like women. The more experience I have with them, the less I'm able to predict their next move.

When I came here as an intern in summer 2007, spot news was the one area in which I had zero experience. One of the biggest hurdles I had early on was balancing my own comfort with my subject's, and nowhere else is this tougher than at the scene of an emergency. Emotions can be running high and often times there is a great sense of urgency. Most people don't even like having their picture taken when they're happy, much less at a low point in their lives.

And this was the assumption I had when I approached my first spot news assignment as an intern — a Kennewick house fire. Crews had extinguished the flames by the time I arrived, but they were still working. I don't remember most of the details of the scene, but what I do remember was hesitation on my part. I knew that strong spot news photos combined an emotional element with the facts of the scene and tried to find an angle that would allow this. I was spotted, though, and friends of homeowner Ingrid Dawson waved me off indicating that she didn't want her picture taken. They really didn't give me much choice, essentially surrounding her after that, but when firefighters took her and her husband, Mike, to show them the damage to their home, I snapped another frame:

Seeing this terrible photo now makes me cringe and the physical and emotional distance in it affirms my vague memory of how I approached this assignment — timidly and with a telephoto from across the street. Her reaction was pretty much what I expected, though, and it made me wonder how gripping emotional shots from spot news situations are made.

About a week later, a wildfire broke out in Kiona, south of Benton City. Tacoma News Tribune reporter Brian Everstine, who was also a Herald intern at the time, was with me around the staging area. There were a few threatened homes near us and we headed to one as the flames approached. We found Christi Hallowell, 16, and Steve Gonzales, 18, frantically leaving their friend Josh Fernald's house as sheriff’s deputies ordered people to evacuate:

It surprised me that they were willing to talk with Brian as he hustled back and forth with them between the house and truck. There was no hostility, no reluctance to having their picture taken. As journalists, we know the reasons we cover things like this. We know the importance of emotion or a human connection in order to properly tell the story of what happened, but not everybody understands this.

I responded to a truck vs. train wreck in March 2008 near Beer Falls in Kennewick, where Daniel Irish of Pasco had high-centered his recently purchased Dodge Ram 500 on the tracks while four-wheeling. His truck was obliterated by a BNSF Railway Co. train, and though no one was hurt, he was cited with criminal trespass, had to pay the cost of towing his vehicle and was facing a potential lawsuit from the railroad company.

Needless to say, he wasn't too excited to talk to me and was very aware of the photos I was making. As soon as I arrived, he kept a healthy distance away from the mangled truck:

He was cordial to me and answered my questions, but when I asked for his name he responded that he didn't really want to give it to me.

"But you'll just get it from the police anyway, huh?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said with a slight frown and a half nod. "You'd really just be saving me a couple minutes."

He paused before concluding that he'd still rather not be the one who gave me the information.

Fair enough.

It's pretty easy to understand that mentality when someone has messed up and is in the middle of facing the consequences. Robert Harville defied that convention, however, when I went to cover a duplex fire that sparked while he was working on his Harley:

Harville was even willing to talk with me briefly while he fought violent coughing fits due to smoke inhalation before medics took him to the hospital.

I should note here that in these situations, I am very careful not to exasperate whatever stress or pain the victims are experiencing. It’s a case-by-case judgment whether to approach someone and if I'm ever angrily told to back off, I will. Also, whenever possible, I try to make a connection while there. Sure, there are plenty of times that long glass is the best or only way to handle things, but nothing elicits the dreaded paparazzi description like creeping around the outer edges of a scene.

So even if I think I'll be denied, I try to get people's names directly, instead of relying on officials at the scene. As uncomfortable as this can feel sometimes, I think it helps show that I'm there for a reason and I'm not ashamed. Plus, police officers are human and occasionally provide us with incorrect spellings.

I applied this methodology last week when I responded to a wreck on the on-ramp from westbound Highway 240 to Interstate 182. There were reports of racing, and when I arrived there were two sheepish looking teens and a couple of parents with a mixture of concern and anger on their faces. After my experiences last winter, I was expecting a similarly frosty response, but both kids surprisingly gave me their names without hesitation. I should add that the driver in yellow was a witness and not involved in the crash:

What was surprising, however, was talking to the person who called 911 after seeing the teens hauling down Highway 240, weaving through traffic and even cutting off a school bus. He refused to give me his full name, which struck me as odd. After all, it’s not as if his 911 call got these kids pulled over for racing.

Even stranger was a lady who started yelling at me after I parked my car, which is clearly marked as a Herald vehicle, in a spot blocked off for me by the Department of Transportation. I couldn't make sense of what she was yelling at me, but it had something to do with me being rude and how I should not be allowed to drive around traffic, which is where Washington State Patrol and DOT had specifically told me to go.

The occasional animosity toward me is generally understandable, though. People will sometimes get mad at police officers too, but firefighters seem exempt from public contempt.

Unless you're in Meadow Springs, apparently.

On July 4 this year, fireworks sparked a 20-acre blaze in the Meadow Hills community in Richland. As reporter Paula Horton and I searched for the fire, we drove into a few dead ends on the hill. I was yelled at for stepping onto private property as I tried to find a vantage point to figure out where all the smoke and glow was coming from.

OK, that's reasonable.

What boggled my mind was hearing the Richland firefighters talk about how they were getting complaints that their fire trucks were damaging lawns. These complaints were coming at them as they worked to finish containing the blaze, which turned a whole hillside into a hot mess of embers on a windy night:

I've undoubtedly gotten better at handling myself in these situations, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to accurately predict how people will react. Luckily, I haven't faced a truly hostile subject or any physical harm. The excitement of the unknown is one thing I love about this job, though, and if I find myself in a dicey situation, chances are that it will be wholly unexpected.


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